Martin Breheny: 'Dubs seeing little to worry them thus far - only one team has made a genuine improvement'
Halfway through the championship, none of their rivals have put strong case forward
Thirty-five games played, 34 to play. Barring draws, the football championships have nudged just past their numerical halfway point, with the culling season gathering pace rapidly.
By Sunday, 16 counties will be eliminated and two weeks later, 24 will be gone, leaving the survivors heading for the 'Super 8s'. The focus is narrowing all the time towards the specific question that has dominated football conversation since last September: can anyone stop Dublin winning the five-in-a-row?
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For that not to happen, two things - or perhaps a combination of both - have to occur. Dublin must lose altitude and/or others must climb to heights not previously reached.
Notwithstanding their dip in the Allianz League, there's no evidence that Dublin have dropped back. Granted, they haven't been tested in another season of (so far at least) craven capitulation by two Leinster rivals, but we can only judge on what we've seen.
That takes the search for an answer to the five-in-a-row question around the country, specifically to the counties regarded as being capable of troubling Dublin.
In all cases, that was predicated on them getting a sizeable improvement on previous seasons. At the start of play, running order for the pursuers was as follows: Kerry, Tyrone, Mayo, Galway, Donegal, Monaghan.
Now, with the season heading towards decision-time, the reality is that only Donegal have strengthened their case. Kerry have yet to present their key evidence, while the other four have all lost ground.
Roscommon's splendid success in Connacht gave them the first booking in this year's Super 8s, so technically they are more advanced than all the rest. However, few would expect them to be the side that eventually sinks Dublin.
Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone topped that list pre-championship, but far from enhancing their credentials, the latter two have lost ground. As for Kerry, the jury haven't all the evidence yet.
What they have heard so far isn't exactly making a compelling case for Peter Keane's team (defensively sloppy against Mayo in the league final, lethargic against Clare in the Munster semi-final), but then a new-look squad with a first-season manager (Mick O'Dwyer) weren't very impressive pre-championship 1975 and we all know how that turned out.
Of all counties, Kerry remain the one that can blossom quickly and, with so many attacking options, Keane has a strong hand.
If, as expected, they win a seventh successive Munster title, they will be in with Donegal or Cavan, plus two Round 4 qualifier winners in the Super 8s. That means that the earliest they could play Dublin, who will almost certainly win Leinster, is in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Of the other leading contenders, Donegal are the only ones to show genuine progress this summer, despatching Tyrone to the 'back door' far easier than the four-point winning margin suggested.
Donegal's Super 8 prospects were severely damaged last year by the loss of Paddy McBrearty, who sustained a serious knee injury in the Ulster final.
Now back in action and going well, he has improved an attack where Jamie Brennan has been outstanding. He scored 3-13 from play in the league and added a further 1-7 against Fermanagh (0-4) and Tyrone (1-3) in the Ulster campaign.
All the signs are positive for Donegal, much less so for Tyrone, Mayo, Galway and Monaghan.
Tyrone's recovery from a bad start (two defeats and a draw in their first three games) to the league appeared to fool the majority of observers into believing there was something different about them this year.
In truth, there isn't. They have nearly always done well in the qualifiers and will probably do so again, but nothing has happened to suggest their All-Ireland case is any more advanced this year.
The same goes for Mayo and Galway. Mayo's league success was overrated in terms of its likely impact and it wasn't long before Roscommon were showing up the same old flaws.
Anthony Cunningham's underdogs didn't even have to bite last Sunday to wound another outfit with targets which won't be reached this year. A loud bark from Roscommon just after half-time was enough to send Galway scurrying for cover.
It's easy to blame management for Galway's apparent stagnation, but the players must take responsibility too. They should have been able to sort out the problems themselves after Roscommon hit back, but instead they lost their way. Utterly leaderless, they produced an embarrassing half, during which they scored only one point in normal time, followed by a second from a '45 in stoppage time.
Monaghan's season has careered downhill since beating Dublin on league opening day and, frankly, there's nothing to suggest they are anywhere nearly as good as last year.
Bottom line? None of Dublin's rivals have made a significant move.