Peter Canavan: 'Mayo ready to defy all logic and progress to semi-final'
Key factors point to a Donegal victory away in Castlebar but Horan's men are well-primed
No matter what way you slice tomorrow night's clash in Castlebar, it's hard to look past Donegal.
All of the logic points to Declan Bonner's men winning and booking their place in an All-Ireland semi-final next weekend. Leaving aside Mayo's home advantage, everything else points to a Donegal win.
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When you compare the two teams, it's Donegal that tick all the right boxes. They have played the better football this year. They have a stronger panel in terms of their bench, with Frank McGlynn and Oisín Gallen in particular making their presence felt when unleashed by Bonner.
They certainly have more match-winners up front. Paddy McBrearty has rediscovered his best form quickly after his knee injury and is a game-breaker. The same can be said of Jamie Brennan, even though he was quiet against Kerry. Michael Langan can kick points for fun, too.
Donegal don't want for leaders either. Michael Murphy is in line for Footballer of the Year and seems immune to pressure when it comes to kicking frees. Murphy and Ryan McHugh demonstrated against Kerry that their understanding has been brought to a new level. They are as formidable a partnership as exists in the game just now.
Donegal have been virtually flawless in another major aspect of modern football - kick-outs. Shaun Patton has proven himself to be one of the best goalkeepers in the country. Time and again he finds his man and gives Donegal the platform to attack. And Donegal have shown they can take a setback too.
The season-ending injury for Eoghan Bán Gallagher, who was one of the most important cogs in the Donegal wheel, didn't derail them as they played out a draw against Kerry.
And as if all of those advantages weren't enough, Donegal have another ace in the hole in former Mayo boss Stephen Rochford who will know the opposition players, and what makes them tick, intimately.
Mayo, on the other hand, have been nothing as impressive. They have already lost twice this summer and their recent form isn't great.
They lost heavily to the Kingdom in the first round of the Super 8s and last time out, a Meath team only learning the ropes at this level gave them plenty to think about.
When the Royals look back at the video of that game they'll see they missed good chances to really put the squeeze on James Horan's men down the home straight.
But that's the thing about this Mayo side over the years. Just when you think they are down, they get back on their feet. The two-week break since the Meath game will have helped a lot. After five weeks on the go, they needed that breather.
That break has helped some of the walking wounded recover with reports Paddy Durcan, Keith Higgins and even captain Diarmuid O'Connor could see action this weekend.
The curious thing about Mayo is that while they can live with the best in the game, they are also vulnerable against teams who are, on paper, far inferior.
Over the years they have flirted with disaster against the likes of Derry, Clare and a struggling Cork side. But they have also taken Dublin to the wire. This time I think they'll play up to the occasion.
This is do or die for Mayo and there's something about the high wire act of knockout football that can bring out the best in them. It's effectively a home All-Ireland quarter-final. I'd imagine Horan would have bitten your hand off for that at the start of the year.
And despite all the logical arguments that make the case for Donegal and have Mayo priced at close to 2/1 in some places, this feels like it is set up for them.
There's an urgency to this group, too. The likes of Keith Higgins, Seamus O'Shea, Colm Boyle and others don't have time on their side. They can't wait for the team to progress in two or three years' time. This is their moment.
Donegal are a team on the up but there's pressure that will come with this game. They have been close to perfect so far this year. They won Division 2 as expected despite a slow start, picked their way through Ulster and are unbeaten in the Super 8s.
They now face a Mayo team which has been beaten twice but know what it is to take a team to the wire and test their will for a fight. These teams could play five times this year and it wouldn't surprise me if Donegal won four.
But Mayo only need a chance. If Donegal leave the door ajar, they have the nous to force their way through. I expect a serious showing from Mayo.
They'll have some big issues to confront. Michael Murphy is the starting point for any team facing Donegal and Lee Keegan has been the go-to man for them for those sort of jobs.
If they can work a system where Keegan tracks him in open play and someone like Aidan O'Shea competes in the air with him at kick-outs, they might be able to do enough.
The Rochford factor will only add to the atmosphere. It will be hostile and will test temperaments and when it's all done only one team will be standing.
My head says Donegal but my gut says Mayo. I'll go with my gut.