GAA Football

Dublin are fallible once more, but Donegal lack the depth to repeat 2014 trick

Donegal saw Dublin as fallible in 2014, and they are fallible now too. But the question is whether the Tír Chonaill men are strong enough to take advantage. Cahair O'Kane analyses this evening's clash...

Ryan McHugh's influence on the 2014 semi-final led to Cian O'Sullivan's role changing and Dublin tightening up on the major flaw in their style. They haven't been beaten in championship football since.

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship quarter-final round robin group two: Dublin v Donegal (Saturday, 7pm, Croke Park, live on RTÉ Two)

IT’S only impossible until it’s done, as the famous Nelson Mandela quote goes.

For 18 months prior to their All-Ireland semi-final meeting with Donegal, it had looked impossible to beat Dublin. They were famously heralded as The Unbeatables, a side whose panache and power had reached a level that nobody else could get close to.

That was until that famous sunny August afternoon, when Ryan McHugh ripped up the sod in front of him and destroyed the fallacy.

Donegal will forever kick themselves that they didn’t back up that win by bringing Sam to the hills for the second time in three years – because the legacy it left was not a stronger Donegal, but a stronger Dublin.

For almost four years since that day, Jim Gavin’s side have remained unbeaten in the championship, winning three consecutive All-Ireland titles. Their 2011 and 2013 conquests have taken on a pre-watershed look ever since they fell to their only summer defeat of the last five years.

But Donegal saw them as fallible in 2014, and they are fallible now too.

Cian O’Sullivan became the resolution of their ills after that game, moving into a position in front of the full-back line in which he’s become the model for all sweepers since.

His injury-inflicted absence from their heart of their defence was partly exposed by the quality of Laois’ kicking to their full-forward line in the opening half of the Leinster final.

But then again, last year’s decider against Kildare seemed to have suggested a path when Kildare pushed Daniel Flynn on to O’Sullivan in a man-for-man approach and had great joy.

Having played only 16 minutes of football since March, he may not be at his best here even if he does start. If he doesn’t, then Philly McMahon or Jonny Cooper will occupy the sweeping role, dropping off Frank McGlynn when he tails back for Donegal.

There are flaws there, moreso now than perhaps at any stage in the last four years, but nobody has been able to put all the pieces together.

Donegal’s hopes of being the team to do so were dealt the most sickening of blows with the news of Patrick McBrearty’s knee injury.

It leaves them without that frightening presence in front of goal, the kind that makes a team alter its defensive shape to cope. They have two talented young forwards in Jamie Brennan and, most likely, Michael Langan but McBrearty’s absence tears their gameplan up.

Michael Murphy has been running the show from midfield, outstanding throughout Ulster. At this stage they’d almost be loathe to take him out of there but needs must.

Lest we forget, these two did meet at this stage two years ago as well. It’s become something of the forgotten brother of their recent meetings, mostly because Donegal were clearly a team on the way out.

Among other things they lacked the conviction that afternoon, doing things like retreating completely into their own half on Dublin’s kickouts, but it was a rare occasion when they actually played Michael Murphy at full-forward.

The plan was undermined by the poor quality of service, with a tonne of ball kicked out over his head or out over the sideline. In the few half decent balls he got delivered, there was enough to suggest that it could be part of the ticket for success this evening.

That takes it back to 2014, when they did put him in at various points, and they also had Neil Gallagher on the edge of the square on rotation. The two of them being in led to their first goal that afternoon, but whether that would wash quite so effectively in the O’Sullivan era is another matter.

There are other ways in which Donegal can trouble Dublin. In winning a first provincial title for four years with almost half a completely new teams since the last time, their running game has been a major success.

From their half-back and full-back lines (if you include Leo McLoone, who often plays deep), they have amassed 4-16 in the championship. Incredibly, that contrasts with just 0-4 for Dublin, who have got two points apiece from Philly McMahon and James McCarthy.

But then, having won the last three All-Irelands, you could be forced to concede that Dublin’s approach of getting it to the shooters isn’t that far off the mark.

Dean Rock (2-15), Ciaran Kilkenny (2-15), Brian Fenton (1-8) and Con O’Callaghan (1-7) gave Wicklow, Longford and Laois plenty to concern themselves with, while Cormac Costello is likely to come back in at the expense of the quiet Paddy Andrews.

They’ve also had Colm Basquel chipping in well, and it’s always been that depth of match-winners – see Costello in the 2016 final replay for example – that have kept them ahead of the rest.

But their reserves as strong now as they once were?

Paul Flynn has been a peripheral figure over most of the last two years. Jack McCaffrey is still on the recovery trail, a second half man in both their games so far.

Kevin McManamon seems to have fallen out of favour altogether, with just 37 minutes this summer and only one full game the whole year against Mayo in the league.

And John Small will be absent as he serves a one-match ban after his red card against Laois was rightly upheld in midweek, while Davy Byrne hasn’t played since they faced Galway back in mid-March.

Their bench the last day had Colm Basquel, Darren Daly, Conor McHugh and Eoin Murchan on it – talent, yes, but would it strike fear the way it once did?

Donegal don’t yet appear to have the depth for an All-Ireland challenge. Cian Mulligan’s pace has proven a useful asset late on in games, while Darach O’Connor could play a similar role.

As much as Dublin learnt from 2014, so did everyone else. Donegal pushed up on Cluxton that day, before it was as fashionable as it is now, and they were menacing on the counter.

Of course, there’s the question now of how much Jim McGuinness is impacting on this new team. It’s emerged that he’s been back working with them, although in exactly what capacity nobody quite knows. But don’t be surprised if he and Bonner have hatched a new plan.

If they’re brave enough early on, they could catch Dublin out and get themselves into a position where they can counter punch. That would make Declan Bonner’s side a danger. They have the pace to do that.

But defensively, they aren’t good enough to take on this Dublin side toe-to-toe, and that’s where almost all of the problems they’ve had in the last three years have come from.

A repeat of four years ago is not as mad a notion as some seem to think, but when it comes down to it, Patrick McBrearty’s absence will allow Dublin a bit of breathing space. They’ll win by five, but not a comfortable five.

******

Man of the moment
Ciaran Kilkenny

Ciaran Kilkenny has hit 4-43 from play for Dublin this year, operating at times at full-forward.

ANYONE that thinks Dublin have been this successful by doing the same things on repeat only needs to look at the evolution of Ciaran Kilkenny’s role this year. Having had such a massive impact on their play from a roving half-forward berth the last two years, he found himself shut out of last year’s decider by an equally mobile Lee Keegan. Perhaps that has led to the change that has seen him stay much higher up the pitch, and often at full-forward. He’ll seldom actually line out there, which is to their advantage as he carries a physical advantage over almost every wing-back in the land. The Castleknock man has hit an incredible 4-33 from play this year, 2-15 of it in the championship.

Team talk
Dublin (probable): S Cluxton; E Lowndes, P McMahon, M Fitzsimons; J McCarthy, J Cooper, B Howard; B Fenton, MD Macauley; N Scully, C O’Callaghan, C Kilkenny; P Mannion, D Rock, C Costello
THE big question is whether Stephen Cluxton will be fit. Jim Gavin says he should be, and in that case he’ll take over from Evan Comerford, who deputised very ably in the Leinster final. John Small’s one-match suspension has stuck, so he is out. Cian O’Sullivan has played just 16 minutes since the Kerry game in the middle of the National League and looks unlikely to start. Brian Howard and Eric Lowndes will continue in defence, while the fit-again Cormac Costello could come into their attack at the expense of Paddy Andrews.

Donegal (probable): S Patton; P McGrath, N McGee, S McMenamin; E Bán Gallagher, P Brennan, R McHugh; H McFadden, M Murphy; L McLoone, O Mac Niallais, F McGlynn; C Thompson, M Langan, J Brennan
NEIL McGee has served his one-match ban after being sent off against Down, and having started the three games in Ulster he’s likely to be handed the number three jersey again. He’ll likely come in for cruciate victim Patrick McBrearty, with the rest of the pieces moving around to fit. Frank McGlynn will return to the number 12 jersey, with Michael Langan most likely to fill the full-forward berth.

Dublin tactical take
AS usual, there’s maybe not that much you can take out of their latest walk to the Leinster title. Laois did cause them problems early on with a direct approach, with the quality of ball bypassing Philly McMahon as the sweeper, and that’s something Donegal will have to look to do. If and when Michael Murphy does drift into the edge of the square, either McMahon or Jonny Cooper will pick him up and someone else will go free. The rotation of their forwards creates havoc for opposition defences, with a ‘false nine’ approach to the full-forward slot leading to the creation of a large percentage of goal chances. Watch out for Dean Rock and Paddy Andrews vacating that space and someone else drifting in from deep – most notably Ciarán Kilkenny.

Donegal tactical take
IT’S one thing to stick to your guns, but Donegal will have to break something different out of the box if they are to cause any real panic for Dublin. They’ll need to be tighter defensively than they have been through the Ulster campaign, but that is manageable. When they lost Patrick McBrearty for a fortnight in the league, they reverted to a very defensive style and were well beaten by both Tyrone and Monaghan. They’ll most likely rotate Michael Murphy and Hugh McFadden to the edge of the square to give the option for a long kick, just as they did four years ago with Murphy and Neil Gallagher – to the effect of getting their crucial first goal off it.

Key battle
Brian Fenton v Michael Murphy
THE two best midfielders in Ireland right now by a considerable distance. Fenton has played more football in league and championship for Dublin than any other player this year, and has hit the summer in great form, kicking 1-8 in their three games so far. Despite their array of attacking talent, he’s their third top scorer this season with 2-17 all in, and his ability under kickouts in considerable. But he’s met nothing like Michael Murphy yet either. Almost half of his 0-31 has come from play as well, and he’s looked as fit and lean as he has at any stage since their 2012 All-Ireland success. There’ll be times in the game where they’ll not be near each other, but when they are, the winner of the battle could decide the war.

Michael Murphy has looked as fit and lean this year as at any stage since 2012. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Weather watch
IT could be the last of the summer wine. Temperatures are expected to hit 26 degrees in the capital today before the clouds move in at the start of the week. And despite the 7pm throw-in time, the forecast says it will be 25 degrees at that stage. Donegal will have to use the kick in that heat if they’re to have any chance.

Last championship meeting
2016 All-Ireland SFC quarter-final: Dublin 1-15 Donegal 1-10
THE last stand of the All-Ireland winning Donegal team, they left with the satisfaction that they gave it all they have.
As the sun started to disappear from the glorious Dublin sky, they were still standing, still trading blows until Paul Mannion finally floored them seconds shy of the 12th round bell.
Dublin deserved it. They made most of the running across the 70 minutes and had it not been for some poor finishing and no shortage of ill-discipline, it might have been over long before it was.
The Leinster champions finished with 13 men, with Diarmuid Connolly sent off for two yellows midway through the second half and Eoghan O’Gara dismissed for a strike on Neil McGee in injury-time.
Ryan McHugh’s well-worked goal was followed almost instantly by the second booking for Connolly, whose high tackle would have merited the dismissal even without the vehement insistence of the Donegal players.
It saved a game that looked to be rolling down the hill towards the kind of oblivion usually reserved for the Dubs’ Leinster outings.
When Dean Rock’s free moved them 0-11 to 0-4 in front after 39 minutes, there seemed no way back for Donegal, and while they did rally, it was always comfortable for the Dubs.

Previous Championship meetings
2016 All-Ireland SFC quarter-final: Dublin 1-15 Donegal 1-10
2014 All-Ireland SFC semi-final: Dublin 0-17 Donegal 3-14
2011 All-Ireland SFC semi-final: Dublin 0-8 Donegal 0-6
2002 All-Ireland SFC quarter-final replay: Dublin 1-14 Donegal 0-7
2002 All-Ireland SFC quarter-final: Dublin 2-8 Donegal 0-14
1992 All-Ireland SFC final: Dublin 0-14 Donegal 0-18

Who’s the ref?
Conor Lane (Cork)
THE Cork man has very definitely forced his way into the top bracket now, and is a strong consideration for any games in the latter All-Ireland series. Remains a difficult official to get a read on, however. While the like of Coldrick, McQuillan and Gough are relatively consistent in terms of their interpretation of physical contact, Lane is less so. The 2016 All-Ireland final referee’s last two outings involved Ulster sides, namely Fermanagh’s game with Kildare and Tyrone’s trip to Carlow.

Betting box
Dublin 1/7
Draw 14/1
Donegal 11/2
Handicap
Dublin (-7) 11/10
Draw (-7) 11/1
Donegal (+7) 5/6
First goalscorer
Dean Rock 5/1
Cormac Costello 8/1
Michael Murphy 8/1
Good value
Donegal over 16.5 points @ Evs

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