Pat Spillane: 'Kerry are possibly better than Dublin in one area and Peter Keane deserves credit for personnel changes'
FORGET about the other three Super 8s games this weekend, the showdown between Kerry and Donegal is the big one.
Victory will put the winners in pole position as the most credible contenders to challenge Dublin and, in practical terms, a second win will almost certainly secure them top spot in Group 1, which means avoiding the Dubs in the All-Ireland semi-final.
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Maybe I'm getting a bit carried away, but my gut instinct suggests this showdown between the Ulster and Munster champions will be the game of the Super 8s.
Mind you, I was similarly hyped up ahead of last weekend's Killarney clash between Mayo and Kerry, but that turned out to be a damp squib with only one team turning up.
Before previewing the game, permit me to make a few observations about last weekend's opening-round fixtures in the series.
Though none of the games were particularly close – with winning margins ranging from four, between Tyrone and Roscommon, to 13 in the Dublin versus Cork tie – in terms of entertainment, profile and impact they were streets ahead of last year's opening round of fixtures in the inaugural Super 8s.
The key difference, of course, was that the provincial champions had home advantage, with a full house in Killarney and almost full houses in Ballybofey and Roscommon.
There was brilliant colour and atmosphere, not just in the ground but in the various towns as well.
On the other hand, the attendance of 30,000 in Croke Park for a game between two counties with a combined population of just over two million was nothing short of a joke. I thought the Dubs had a core fan base of 35,000.
Of course, the Cork footballers and hurlers ought to have been on the same bill last weekend. What happened was a disgrace to their fans, though it has to be acknowledged that aside from trips to Killarney or Thurles, they are not great travellers.
The take-home message from the Super 8s is that all the games should be played at provincial venues. Games in Croke Park before an attendance of 30,000 make absolutely no sense. Only the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals should be played at HQ.
I know I'm late jumping on the 'anti-Dublin' bandwagon – in fact I'm probably the last to do so – but it is blatantly unfair that Dublin are guaranteed two games in Croke Park, which is their home venue.
Think about this for a second: if they win the All-Ireland this year they will have played six of their seven matches in Croke Park. How is that for fairness?
Why not swing the pendulum a little in the other direction and take all their Super 8s games out of Croke Park.
And finally, while I'm in a cranky mood, can anybody explain to me why the admission price to the terraces at provincial venues last weekend was €25, while it cost €20 to get into Hill 16.
Anyway, let's get back to what has been the burning topic of conversation all week: the Donegal v Kerry showdown.
Kerry come into the game on the back of the best 35-minute performance we have seen so far in the Championship. Hand on heart, I wasn't really surprised.
They were in an ideal position. They had three weeks to prepare for it, after having two decent games against Clare and Cork in the Munster series.
They were also coming in under the radar with a lot of criticism being hurled at the management and the players after a less than complete performance against Cork in the provincial final.
Amazingly, Kerry hadn't beaten Mayo at home in the League for 10 years and furthermore the only two defeats they endured this season were against Mayo.
This was a replica of what Kerry faced before they played Tyrone in Killarney in the qualifiers in 2012. They had to get this monkey off their back and that's exactly what they did.
There is no secret to how they won; they simply controlled the midfield exchanges. Once Kerry get on top in this sector they are a different animal.
Once their forwards get the quality and quantity of ball that came their way against Mayo they are unstoppable.
Up front they are probably even better than Dublin when in full flight.
There were other contributory factors and the zonal press that they implemented on David Clarke's kick-outs was crucial.
They need to do a similar job today because in terms of the accuracy and impact of his restarts, Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton is in the same league as Stephen Cluxton.
What was most impressive about their display, however, was how they finally addressed the defensive frailties that were exposed in the Munster final.
Defenders were less inclined to go forward; they blocked the centre channels, tracked back, attacked the ball and applied collective pressure when required.
Peter Keane deserves credit for the changes made in personnel as he brought physicality into the defence in the shape Gavin Crowley and Shane Enright.
However, his master-stroke – which largely went under the radar – was his decision to play Gavin White at wing-forward rather than wing-back. Freed from the responsibility of 'marking' a specific opponent, he used his lightning pace to track up and down the field all day.
No prizes for guessing who he will face today: Ryan McHugh, of course, and maybe later on in the season he could face the ultimate challenge of giving Jack McCaffrey something to think about.
So how are good are Kerry? The honest answer is that I genuinely don't know.
Mayo looked tired and leggy and in the second half Kerry took their foot off the pedal.
The loss of pace that James O'Donoghue has experienced due to his litany of hamstring injuries is also a big concern. That characteristic burst of speed which enabled him to go past defenders is missing.
Up until last Sunday Donegal were arguably the second-ranked team in the country on the basis of their Championship performances, but I'm not so sure about their place in the pecking order any more.
On the plus side they have a system of play in place which the players have bought into and fully understand.
They're not short on physicality, have good runners and a decent bench.
So far this summer Patton's restarts have been impeccable, but the three jewels in their crown are Messrs Murphy, McHugh and McBrearty. How Kerry deal with them could ultimately decide the outcome.
To be fair, you had to admire how they finally put away Meath in the last 15 minutes in Ballybofey, outscoring them 1-7 to 0-1 when the chips were down. However,I wasn't impressed by their With 15 minutes left they were one point behind against at best an average Meath team and were opened up repeatedly by the visitors and the loss of Eoghan Bán Gallagher is a huge blow.
I'm told that Kerry and Donegal met in a challenge match in Kiltoom, Co Roscommon, atthe start of the summer which turned into a pretty feisty affair.
Kerry won that game and I expect that they will do likewise today, provided they bring the same intensity to the table that they did last weekend.