GAA Football

Relentless Mayo can end replay hoodoo and see off Kerry in semi-final showdown

Cillian O'Connor scored four points in last Sunday's draw and could be the match winner today
Andy Watters

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final replay: Kerry v Mayo (today, Croke Park, 3pm, live on RTE/Sky Sports)

IT'S the return of the living dead.

This Mayo team has been killed off more times than a white walker over the last three seasons but, like the Games of Thrones zombies, they simply refuse to die.

After last Sunday's nerve-jangling draw, the westerners retrace their steps to Croke Park this afternoon hoping to see off dogged Kerry and continue their relentless, obsessive pursuit of that elusive All-Ireland title.

Given their efforts in recent years you could say that Mayo deserve to win this replay and get to another final.

And you might ask: Do they deserve to finally win it after finding a variety of ways to lose since 2014?

Of course they do and neutrals will join the faithful legion of fans who continue to turn out to cheer Mayo on, but deserves has got nothing to do with it at Croke Park around this time of year.

At the highest level, Mayo have become experts at snatching draws from the jaws of victory and then losing replays.

Back in 2014, after a stalemate at Croker, it was the Kingdom who prevailed in a blood-and-thunder battle royal in Limerick. The following year, this time against Dublin, Mayo had a semi-final replay in their hands but collapsed late on and ended up losing by seven points.

Last year, despite scoring two own goals, they forced a draw in the final, but again fell short the following weekend. Dublin won and the westerners made their familiar trudge off Croke Park. Beaten, dreams shattered, back to the drawing board…

But it seems that time is a great healer out west and Mayo have shown uncommon fortitude to get this far this season.

Galway toppled them in Connacht and Roscommon and Derry both pushed them to the brink, but Mayo prevailed.

They should have prevailed again last week against a disjointed Kerry side after creating match-winning positions three times before allowing the Munster kingpins to force their way back into the game.

Kerry mixed lacklustre fits with devastating starts and then there was the play within the play between Aidan O'Shea and Brendan Donaghy.

O'Shea was sacrificed as a scorer to mark Kerry full-forward Donaghy and the experiment backfired as the Tralee maestro scored or created 2-4 for his side.

Will Mayo manager Stephen Rochford continue with the tactic? Surely not. This time around he has to push O'Shea up the field and

While he was criticised for his ‘tinkerman' tendencies, at least Rochford employed some creative thinking into how to bottle up ‘Star'. On the other hand, while his tactic of matching up Paul Murphy with Lee Keegan was a masterstroke, Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice seemed clueless when it came to shutting out Mayo forward Andy Moran.

Ballaghaderreen veteran Moran capitalised on some ‘after-you-Claude' defending in the Kerry full-back line to help himself to 1-5. The space the Mayo attack was afforded was alarming at times and the westerners would have won the match comfortably if Cillian O'Connor had been at his absolute best.

O'Connor had his moments and scored four points, but Mayo manager Rochford will hope for more from him and from Keegan who was superbly shackled by tenacious Tarbert clubman Murphy.

Rochford will also need better from goalkeeper David Clarke whose kickouts were erratic (Mayo won 16 out of 25) and coughed up vital possession which kept Kerry in the game at crucial spells.

In front of Clarke there is the question of who picks up Donaghy this time around.

Aidan O'Shea tried, but failed and muscular corner-back Brendan Harrison has been touted as a possible replacement. But Harrison has his hands full with Paul Geaney, so it would seem more prudent to bring Donal Vaughan back to track ‘Star'.

That would release O'Shea to replace his elder brother Seamus and strengthen Mayo's midfield alongside Tom Parsons and at the same time add a new dimension to their attack.

With Michael Geaney injured, Kerry manager Fitzmaurice looks likely to start Jonathan Lyne while emerging talent Jack Barry is line for a start in midfield after replacing the sluggish Anthony Maher last Sunday.

Barry can have a major impact because the root of Kerry's defensive frailty last weekend was in the middle third of the field. They had feet on the ground, but the workrate was poor and without ‘heat' on the ball, Mayo had time and space to pick their passes.

The result was that the Kingdom full-back line was hung out to dry and, while Fitzmaurice may not opt for an out-and-out sweeper system, he will need to assign players to soak up space in defence and deny Moran the acres he exploited so ruthlessly last Sunday.

Of course, if Kerry do that it limits their options in attack and so Donaghy's role as a targetman becomes even more crucial.

Kerry hadn't seen competitive action in six weeks before last weekend and that goes some way towards explain their rusty display. Donaghy and Paul Geaney got them out of jail when so many others failed to show up and you have to give them credit for hanging in there and expect better from them this afternoon.

There is massive room for improvement and, because they are Kerry, it's reasonable to assume that they'll be much better today and that Fitzmaurice will find a way to plug the gaps and shut down the Mayo forwards.

But if the Kerry management can come up with a better defensive system you could ask: Why didn't he employ it last Sunday? And if he has better defenders on the bench, why weren't they playing?

But that's the thing about replays – the team that learns most from the first game usually wins second time around.

However, this is not a vintage Kerry side. They rode their luck last Sunday and if Mayo bring the same intensity today and improve their tackling under pressure they can finish what they started.

Given their record in replays, tipping Mayo is fraught with danger but this relentless side can end their losing run in replays, edge another tight game and book their place in the final.

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