Sunday 19 January 2020

Favourites in form for final repeat

Dundalk capatin Stephen O'Donnell will be back in action against Derry
Dundalk capatin Stephen O'Donnell will be back in action against Derry

Sean Ryan

FAI Cup semi-finals can be notoriously unpredictable. It's rare for them to produce what fans would consider the ideal final. However, it does happen as, for example, last year, when the League's top two, Dundalk and Cork City, made it through to the final.

With the draw in their favour, can it happen a second time, or is the semi-final curse about to descend on one of the favourites and deny them that coveted place in the final at the Aviva on Sunday, November 6?

If current form is anything to go by, then a repeat of last year's decider looks on the cards, for both Dundalk and Cork City have been displaying rude good form in recent weeks, despite the heavy backlog of fixtures they are working through.

League and Cup holders Dundalk are fighting on three fronts - League, Cup and Europa League - and there is no end in sight until December 8, when they play their final group game in the Europa League away to Maccabi Tel Aviv. Playing the same opposition last Thursday was hardly the ideal preparation for today's semi-final against Derry City, but at least some of the weariness is offset by a home draw (1.45, Oriel Park).

Inspirational captain Stephen O'Donnell, who missed Thursday's game through suspension, will be back in action to drive his men on against a Derry squad that includes six talented youngsters, 21 or under. Conor McDermott, Ben Doherty, Ronan Curtis, Josh Daniels, Aaron McEneff and Nathan Boyle have all made a big impression this season, and it will take all the experience of O'Donnell and his teammates to deny them a taste of Cup glory.

Derry contributed handsomely to the exciting brand of football that was on display in Oriel, but they might incline towards something more conservative with the Cup final in sight.

Manager Kenny Shiels, whose son Dean is in the Dundalk squad, has had to revise his plans already this season, as he explained to me: "A top six place was the original target, but not to make Europe would now be very disappointing. We're playing a good brand of football that people should be coming out to see, we're trying to entertain."

With Shamrock Rovers having overtaken them in the race for third place, which guarantees a Europa League spot, Shiels may be tempted to frustrate Dundalk rather than attempt to out-play them.

In the other semi-final, St Patrick's Athletic host Cork City at Richmond Park (3.55), but they didn't do much to boost their confidence in Tuesday's 0-0 draw with Sligo Rovers at the same venue. Pat's had plenty of chances, but most of them were kicked high or wide, hardly the rehearsal manager Liam Buckley was hoping for.

Meanwhile, in Turner's Cross, Cork blitzed Galway United for five goals to maintain their pursuit of Dundalk and display the goalscoring form which deserted them last weekend in Sligo.

In terms of preparation, then, Sligo is a common denominator. Neither Pat's nor Cork could master the Men from the West or score against them, but both were given a searching work-out. Cork seemed to benefit from it, with their five-goal return to form against Galway, while Pat's will be hoping for a similar lift today.

A manager always learns more about his players when they are put under pressure, so it will be interesting to see how Buckley reacts to last Tuesday's uninspiring display. Without injured playmaker Keith Treacy, his options are limited, so it may well be a case of more of the same in the hope that players like Christy Fagan, Jamie McGrath, Conan Byrne, Billy Dennehy and Graham Kelly will re-discover their shooting boots.

Cork, with ex-Pat's stalwarts Kenny Browne and Greg Bolger in their ranks, seem more likely to hit the target, with Sean Maguire, Karl Shepherd and Gary Buckley all potential matchwinners.

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