Peter Canavan rates the ten counties remaining in the race for Sam Maguire
There are weaknesses in each of the remaining counties hoping to win the Sam Maguire. Whichever team hides them best is likely to come out on top
It's that time of year again when the real business of the football championship begins in Croke Park.
This year's race for Sam Maguire has been a slow burner and struggled to whet supporters' appetite, but the provincial final victories of Galway and Tyrone - coupled with last weekend's wins for Munster minnows Clare and Tipperary - have added some spice to the summer menu.
As the championships heads for headquarters, this is how I rate the prospects of the ten remaining combatants:
Strengths: There's many reasons why they're champions, but it's mainly because they possess the most talented footballers. Their whole set-up is second to none and when it comes to preparation, the management ensure that the players' only concern is beating whoever stands in their way. They have leaders that they can turn to when the pressure comes on and if things are going against them, Jim Gavin also has the luxury of being able to spring proven game-changers from the bench.
Weaknesses: They have hadn't any serious test since the league final on April 24 - a day when Kerry stayed with them for three-quarters of the game. You can have all the training matches you want, but it doesn't compensate for competitive games. As a result, their defensive unit is unproven and in their next game, they're unlikely to have the injured James McCarthy, which is a blow considering they're already without Jack McCaffrey and Rory O'Carroll. Also, there's the annual question for champions: do they have sufficient hunger to retain the title? That will only be answered in the heat of battle.
Summary: They are deserving of their short-priced favourites' tag, but as many a punter at Galway will tell you, odds-on shots don't always win.
Strengths: They weren't No 2 in the country at the start of the summer but they have leapfrogged into this position by virtue of their performances. Their confidence is bubbling after landing the Ulster title and that can only strengthen their belief in the system they are playing. After Jim Gavin, Mickey Harte has the strongest panel at his disposal and it must now be a difficult job to pick the 26 for every game. He also has a nice blend of youth and experience, with a bonus that a man of Joe McMahon's calibre is coming back into contention and fresh after missing a good chunk through injury.
Weaknesses: Their forward line needs to perform more consistently and as a more cohesive unit. They have been sporadic to date and some of the frontmen can sometimes start playing as individuals; they cannot afford to go down that road when they get to Croke Park. They also need to be more clinical with their goal opportunities, something which cost them dear in last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry.
Summary: Of the so-called big guns, they are the most improved team, and if that progress is maintained, they should get to the final.
Strengths: They know how to win All-Irelands, and when pressure comes on in the big games, the likes of Kieran Donaghy, Bryan Sheehan and Donnchadh Walsh will keep calm in the heat of battle and show leadership to those around them. Also, they have to be motivated by a sense of not having done themselves justice in last year's final against Dublin - that can hurt quite a bit. Having an abundance of quality forwards also helps. They have got this far without James O'Donoghue, and 'Gooch' Cooper is now sidelined, but that isn't a concern as Stephen O'Brien and Mikey Geaney have already stepped up to the mark in front of goal.
Weaknesses: How much have they got in the legs, particularly in the middle third? This is the area in which they struggled in the league final against Dublin, when they started to get tired midway through the second half. For all their experience, the likes of Donaghy and Sheehan just can't go at full tilt for 70 minutes and it doesn't look like Eamonn Fitzmaurice is happy with the alternatives. Defensively, there are also question marks. Tipp found holes pretty easily in the Munster final, scoring two goals - and it could have been four. I fancy those gaps won't get smaller in Croke Park.
Summary: They will beat Clare on Sunday and then have their last crack off the Dubs in the semi-final.
Strengths: Like Tyrone, they have shown sustained improvement this summer and with their strong tradition, returning to Croke Park could get more out of the players. And like Kerry, they don't lack for men who know how to finish: Damien Comer, Danny Cummins, Shane Walsh and Gary Sice can do damage to any defence given a decent supply. But perhaps the biggest boost to them has been the performances of goalkeeper Bernard Power and full-back Declan Kyne, who have been rock-steady.
Weaknesses: Their targets for the summer have already been met, so Kevin Walsh - who must take plaudits for the way the team has stepped up as they have progressed - will have to convince his players they have more to give. His biggest problem is that when he looks over his shoulder with 15 minutes to go, he just doesn't have the options that the other provincial champions have. His players are also short on experience against the big guns.
Summary: They should get the better of Tipperary, but at this stage of their development, it's hard to see them going any further.
Strengths: No team has their defensive style honed better than Rory Gallagher's men. Even when things go wrong, they never lose faith in the system, and you have to admire they way they stick to their task. It also should not be forgotten that by the 70th minute in the Ulster final, Tyrone had only scored ten points and Donegal had put themselves in a position to win the match. Big-game players like Michael Murphy, Paddy McBrearty and Odhran MacNiallais should be chomping at the bit getting back to play in Croke Park.
Weaknesses: Much the same as Kerry, many of their players have been on the road a long time and that worry became a reality down the home run of the Ulster final, when Karl Lacey, Anthony Thompson and Rory Kavanagh struggled with the pace. The latter pair were both substituted, while the fact that Thompson was brought back on with five minutes to go underlines a major problem for Gallagher: he doesn't have players on his bench that he believes in.
Summary: I have no doubt that they will get the better of Cork tomorrow and they will give Dublin a run for their money in the quarter-final. . . until the petrol runs dry.
Strengths: Of all the teams remaining, these boys should not want for motivation. They got a lot of flak for losing to Galway and it hasn't let up since then, so if they channel this the right way, they should be a much tighter unit. They still have the talent and the athleticism to take on the big guns, while in Diarmuid O'Connor and Colm Boyle, they possess two players who lead by example and who can provide inspiration. The return of Tom Parsons from injury will also help.
Weaknesses: In many respects, they have lost their mojo. I thought a run in the qualifiers might help them rediscover it, but a lot of their bigger players - like Cillian O'Connor and Donal Vaughan - have looked laboured. The defensive system they have deployed with Kevin McLoughlin operating as a sweeper hasn't worked and it was alarming how their midfield struggled against Kildare. Then, there's the Aidan O'Shea enigma: he has been played all over the park, instead of being given a specific role.
Summary: They will prove too strong for Westmeath tomorrow and they remain the team with the most potential outside of the top three.
Strengths: In his first season, Peadar Healy is learning more about his players with each game and slowly finding his best team. There appears to be a return to form from some of their seasoned campaigners - Colm O'Neill, Paul Kerrigan and Paddy Kelly - and the addition of promising youngsters Peter Kelleher and Sean Powter has added impetus to the attack.
Weaknesses: Defensively, they don't seem to be learning. They conceded big scores in the league (which ultimately led to their relegation) and the concession of 3-15 to Tipp in Munster was proof they haven't shored things up. Also, if I was a Cork supporter I'd be worried about what their captain, Kerrigan, said after the last game - that they'd shoved the criticism down their detractors' throats. Really? After beating Limerick and Longford? It's only when you beat a team of Donegal's calibre that you can come out with something like that.
Summary: They're capable of throwing down a challenge to Donegal, but not of beating them.
Strengths: The team of the summer in many ways, they have been a breath of fresh air and they must be brimming with confidence. In Gary Brennan, they have the midfielder of the championship. He has been outstanding, and the fact that his midfielder partner, Cathal O'Connor, is able to play after having his red card rescinded is a welcome bonus. David Tubridy isn't far behind Brennan in the leadership stakes and has been playing well, while Jamie Malone, Eoin Cleary, Keelan Sexton and Sean Collins are all learning with each game and improving.
Weaknesses: For all their energy and enthusiasm, they lack a cutting edge. They were by far the better team against Roscommon last Saturday, but having wasted a glut of opportunities, they were only three points in front with about 15 minutes to go. Having played Kerry already, it must be a sickener to be facing them again. I'm sure manager Colm Collins would have preferred his players to be taking on a new challenge.
Summary: Still on a learning curve, I can see them ruffling a few Kerry feathers, but a victory is beyond them.
Strengths: Similar to Clare, Tipp have brought a real feelgood factor to this year's championship and after their heroics against Derry, there must have been a great buzz at training this week which I'm sure will be brought to Croke Park. What has impressed me most about them is their attitude. At no stage have I heard Liam Kearns or the players moaning about the absence of so many players - they have just gone on with it. This has fostered a never-say-die spirit which served them well late on against Derry and Cork - aided by the fact they possess quality marksmen in Conor Sweeney, Michael Quinlivan and Kevin O'Halloran.
Weaknesses: While they're good going forward, their backline is a long way from being the finished article. I'd go as far as to say they are defensively naïve, and will need to develop a more ruthless approach. And, having had to do without so many players for a variety of reasons, lack of strength in depth is a problem and as problem arise, Kearns just doesn't have viable alternatives.
Summary: Another battling display looks assured on Sunday, but Galway are likely to have their measure.
Strengths: They'll have no fear of Mayo and the fact that everyone is writing them off this week is sure to give them plenty of motivation. They'll take heart from their first-half performance against Dublin and how their set-up worked - for as long as they had the legs to carry it out. Having forwards of the proven ability of John Heslin and Kieran Martin will always give you hope, once you get sufficient ball to them.
Weaknesses: Their lack of mobility in the middle proved a big handicap in the second half against Dublin and with their limited pool of resources that is always going to be a problem. This can put huge pressure on the backs as a game progresses. Also, the unfortunate injury to Ray Connellan robs Tom Cribbin of a promising young forward.
Summary: As they were against Dublin, they'll be competitive early on against Mayo but the difficulty is sustaining their challenge.