Tuesday 14 August 2018

Old foes geared up for latest showdown

John Caulfield and Stephen Kenny will lock horns again at Turner’s Cross tonight. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
John Caulfield and Stephen Kenny will lock horns again at Turner’s Cross tonight. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Before the start of this League of Ireland season, John Caulfield and Stephen Kenny said all the right things about expecting a more open title race this term.

There is a familiar look to the top of the table, however, much as both Cork and Dundalk have dropped points to teams that are to the forefront of the chasing pack.

After 12 games, the old rivals sit joint top with a four-point gap opened up to third-placed Waterford. For the fifth year in a row, they are set to duke it out for the crown.

The importance of the individual meetings between the sides cannot be overstated and that's why a bumper crowd will descend on Turner's Cross this evening.

Over the past four years, the head-to-head league encounters have been a reliable indicator of where the end-of-season honours will go.

The exception to the rule was 2016, when Cork took six points out of nine to win the aggregate battle and still lost the league.

That was no ordinary year, though, and Dundalk managed to strike the decisive blow in an Oriel Park showdown that was fitted around their European exploits.

Edge

Cork took seven from a possible nine last year en route to their league title win and the retention of the FAI Cup at the Aviva Stadium confirmed the view that the Leesiders had the psychological edge over Kenny's side when the opposite used to be the case.

That's why the Dundalk players celebrated March's 1-0 win at Oriel Park; they felt they were making an important statement.

Cork's captain Conor McCormack, a big player in the top-two clashes last term, was substituted before half-time because he was on a booking and struggling.

It was a difficult night for Caulfield's side and they will want to return the favour by making life very uncomfortable for their guests.

Midfielder Jimmy Keohane admits they have accrued their current points total without necessarily hitting top gear.

"There's a lot of potential in the group," he said. "We know ourselves our performances haven't been as fluid as we would have liked.

"But a good sign is that we're picking up points. We've got to keep working hard, that's what we base our game on. The free-flowing, fluid performances could come in within a few games.

"The last day (March) we were a little bit below-par, but there's always a big performance in us and it's easy to get ourselves up for this game.

"There's going to be a massive crowd," continued Keohane, speaking on the LOI Weekly podcast. Our home record this season has been very good and that's down to starting well and getting the crowd behind us early."

Indeed, Cork have yet to even concede a goal at home, which helps to explain their 100pc record.

On the flip side, Dundalk have kept a clean sheet in every away game, so those runs will be severely tested when the top two lock horns.

It will be edgy. Tensions have spilled over between the sides, with the build-up to last November's FAI Cup final especially rancorous.

Dundalk striker Patrick Hoban was following that from afar before re-signing for the Lilywhites.

His first spell at the club ended with victory in the winner-takes-all league decider in 2014, the real start of this new era.

"I don't think I've ever lost to Cork," said Hoban. "There was a lot of things said between the two sides, and on the Cork side. They fuelled our fire a bit."

Individual battles will be key. In-form Cork attacker Graham Cummins can expect a physical test from Dan Cleary and Sean Hoare.

McCormack has a score to settle, while Kenny must choose between Stephen O'Donnell and Chris Shields as support for Robbie Benson.

Caulfield has placed his faith in young centre-halves Sean McLoughlin and Conor McCarthy and will have to decide whether to stick with them for the acid test. A recall for creative left winger Kieran Sadlier would set up an intriguing joust with Dundalk's Sean Gannon.

This is a game that will reveal character and, with the switch to a 10-team league adding an extra meeting, home advantage will level out across the campaign. Cork need to make use of it tonight.

It's not the only showdown of substance. Stephen Bradley needs a result from Shamrock Rovers' trip to Derry or else the pressure will crank up for Cork's arrival in Tallaght on Monday.

Meanwhile, Bray's Carlisle Grounds encounter with Limerick brings together the bottom two and it's entirely likely they will fill those spots come November. Avoiding the automatic drop is their main target.

  • Cork City v Dundalk, Live, RTé 2, 7.15

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport