McLoone: Donegal can negotiate path of most resistance
IF the sea parted somewhat for Dublin in their pursuit of back-to-back All-Ireland titles after Saturday's All-Ireland quarter-final draw, Donegal have been handed the most onerous of tasks.
Jim McGuinness' men may have to beat the All-Ireland champions of the last three years if they are to reclaim the Sam Maguire for the first time since 1992 -- starting with 2009 winners Kerry on Sunday.
They could meet 2010 champions Cork in a semi-final, while reigning champions Dublin are tipped to come through their side of a draw to complete what would be the toughest possible route for Donegal.
They are used to difficult draws at this stage, having carved out a little piece of history for themselves when they retained the Ulster title despite being drawn in the preliminary round for the past two seasons.
But according to forward Leo McLoone, this Donegal team mature with each challenge they meet -- and overcome.
"Maybe last year we won an Ulster championship and everything was a bit nervous and everyone was a bit anxious," said McLoone (pictured right).
"I think this year everybody settled down and enjoyed the occasion a bit more. We had time to think about it and supporters, players and everyone involved enjoyed the occasion, more so than last year.
"And our time out in Croke Park last year... that bit of experience. We are used to the surroundings and so on."
If they have matured as a team then they have also evolved tactically from their much-maligned performance in last year's All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin.
Their Ulster decider win over Down underlined just how much they have progressed. They scored 2-15 from play and had 11 different scorers in their comprehensive defeat of the Mourne men.
"I think our fitness really showed in the second half," said McLoone. "We had the wind in the second half and it helped us lots as we could kick from further out. There was less energy being used working the ball up the field. Our fitness was maybe the main aspect."
McGuinness has a number of fitness concerns ahead of Sunday's clash. David Walsh appears to be the biggest doubt after being forced out of the Ulster final with a hamstring injury he carried into the game.
Neil Gallagher is not fully fit but will play some part, while Ryan Bradley and Karl Lacey sat out training over the weekend as a precautionary measure, though both are expected to feature in what is a first meeting between the sides in the championship.
Kerry have been installed as clear favourites (8/11) in their 12th successive All-Ireland quarter-final, while Donegal are 11/8 to repeat the heroics of this stage last year, when Kevin Cassidy kicked a booming winner in extra-time to beat Kildare and progress to the last four.
And McLoone admits his side have lost the element of surprise after their success at provincial level, which brings its own challenges.
"A lot of teams have been working on ways to stop our play and we were definitely underdogs (more often) last year," he said.
"Maybe teams are watching out for us that bit more after winning Ulster last year. This year we will be under that bit more pressure.
"Our main goal at the start of the year was to retain the Ulster Championship and we have done that. I suppose you always want more when you are winning and of course we want to win every game from now on but that won't be easy.
"Our focus will be each game at a time -- the quarter-final is our big game."