Friday 23 March 2018

Goal-shy Westmeath must improve net gains to have any chance

Westmeath's John Heslin. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Westmeath's John Heslin. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

As Tom Cribbin mulls over the best tactics to use in what most observers regard as mission impossible, he won't find any encouragement in checking the history of Westmeath v Dublin.

Apart from championship wins standing at 15-3 to Dublin, Westmeath's inability to score goals in this particular rivalry has long since reached chronic proportions.

Incredibly, Westmeath have returned just one goal in their last 12 championship clashes with Dublin, the sole strike coming from Michael Ennis in the 2008 Leinster semi-final.

That's one goal in 14 hours, 10 minutes (the 1972 tie was played over 80 minutes) of action, a statistic that looks utterly implausible. It's true, nonetheless, so as well as facing the sizeable challenge of trying to figure a way to improve on their performances against Dublin over the last two years, there's a historical handicap to be overcome too.

Westmeath's last win over Dublin in 2004 was achieved without scoring a goal (0-14 to 0-12) but it's impossible to see how they could even seriously test the All-Ireland champions tomorrow without forcing Stephen Cluxton to retrieve the ball from the net at least twice.

Westmeath hit Offaly for three goals last Sunday and scored 16 goals in eight league games earlier this year but there's a massive difference between unpicking locks against lower-division opposition and hitting on Dublin's code.

There's also the question of how Westmeath approach the game. Will they set up defensively or take Dublin on? They opted for the former in the last two Leinster finals and lost by a combined total of 28 points after second-half fade-outs.

Carlow chose ultra-defensive mode against Dublin a few weeks ago and escaped with a 12-point defeat, which was a fair achievement against opposition that finished 25 places ahead of them in the league.

Westmeath were in Division 4 too but, having beaten Wexford, Meath, Offaly and Kildare in the Leinster Championship over the last two years, would feel they are better equipped than Carlow for this sort of test.

Westmeath supporters are expecting a more adventurous approach tomorrow but it's by no means certain they will see it. Caution worked well up to half-time in the last two Leinster finals so Cribbin may well feel that a refined version, complete with greater durability, still represents the best chance of testing Dublin.

He must also calculate the possible implications of a gung-ho game-plan, which carries the risk of a really big defeat, leaving a deflated squad heading into the qualifiers.

For Dublin, it's all about quickening the pace towards the levels they will need later on. Kildare's impressive win over Meath last Saturday suggested that they are better equipped for a Leinster final than for quite some time so Dublin need to deliver a smooth performance to accelerate the tuning process.

If the average scores from their last three clashes with Westmeath since 2013 were replicated, Dublin would win by 2-17 to 0-8. Westmeath are likely to do better than that but unless they find a way of ending the goal shortage - a very difficult assignment against a Dublin side than conceded only four goals in nine Division 1 league games this year - they will do well to escape with anything less than a 10-point defeat.

Irish Independent

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