Sky's the limit for Monaghan
Quarter-final Group One: Monaghan v Kildare (tomorrow, Croke Park, 2pm, live on Sky Sports Arena)
AT A Sky Sports talk night on Thursday evening, all five pundits opted for Kildare to beat Monaghan at Croke Park tomorrow afternoon.
Peter Canavan, James Horan, Senan Connell, Cora Staunton and journalist Colm Keyes all plumped for the Lilywhites in what was a 5-0 landslide.
It’s clear that Monaghan still have a lot of convincing to do. Kildare, meanwhile, appear to have come up with satisfactory answers to the questions surrounding their ability to be a big player in this year’s All-Ireland Championship.
Broadly speaking, both counties have had similar paths to the Supers 8s.
They both suffered shock losses to lower tier opposition – Monaghan losing to Division Three Fermanagh and Kildare falling against Division Four Carlow – and they both have picked up a head of steam in the Qualifiers, the Lilywhite’s winning four games to the Farney’s three.
It’s the calibre of opposition faced though that has forced the pendulum Kildare’s way for many experts.
Derry and Longford away were difficult trips on paper but they dealt with them in a professional manner, especially as manager Cian O’Neill was under intense scrutiny from his own supporters at the time.
Mayo at home, after the whole Newbridge/Croke Park debacle, showed that they can compete with the best while their destruction of Fermanagh demonstrated that they had learned from their Carlow loss and had found an effective way to penetrate packed defences.
Monaghan, meanwhile, have simply had to take care of a trio of Division Four sides – Waterford, Leitrim and Laois.
It’s understandable then that plenty are backing Kildare to start their group campaign with a win, but it also ignores the simple fact Monaghan are the better team.
If these two teams played each other 10 times without any subplots, Malachy O’Rourke’s side would win the majority.
The fear, however, is that O’Rourke still can’t be sure which Monaghan is going to show up at Croke Park.
Will it be the Monaghan that got the better of Dublin earlier in the League at this very venue and the one that brought an incredible intensity to their Ulster win over Tyrone? Will it be the side that couldn’t find any rhythm against Fermanagh and managed just five second-half points against Laois last weekend?
That victory against the O’Moore county may have become more difficult than it needed to be, but there were still plenty of positives for the Ulster side.
When the busy Ryan McAnespie swung over their penultimate score, it meant that they had 10-plus scorers for the fourth championship game out of five.
They also created half a dozen superb goal chances only to be denied by Graham Brody while Kieran Hughes also got some-much needed game-time as he deals with a tricky hamstring problem.
Most crucially, however, is the lessening dependence on Conor McManus.
‘Mansy’ has still been outstanding – see the last quarter against Tyrone for example – but it seems that O’Rourke is finally finding a way to fend against the ‘stop McManus and you stop Monaghan’ mantra.
Over the last three Championship seasons, the Clontibret ace has been responsible for just shy of 40 percent of his team’s scores. This year he sits at just below 20 percent.
McManus has racked up 1-22 of their 7-108 total with the scores now coming from all over the pitch with 19 players raising flags to date.
Fintan Kelly is the only player to join McManus in scoring in all five games but Rory Beggan, Jack McCarron, Ryan McAnespie, Conor McCarthy and Colin Walshe have scored in four of the five matches. Indeed, only five of the 19 have only scored in a single game.
It’s attacking prowess that Kildare will also be relying on to get their Super 8 campaign up and running with a win.
Since only managing 1-10 in the defeat to Carlow, they’ve hit 2-22, 1-16, 0-21 and 3-20.
The last of those came against Fermanagh when Neil Flynn kept alive a remarkable record. The Maynooth man’s 1-5 now means that he has top scored for Kildare in all eight of the Championship games he has played.
Daniel Flynn, no relation, has also rediscovered his best form since being switched to the edge of the square from midfield. Their battles with the Wylie brothers, Drew and Wylie, will be so important to the outcome.
Equally as important, of course, will be the performance of McManus at the other end. Mick O’Grady or Peter Kelly will be given the unenviable task of marking him and they will have their work cut out against arguably the star forward on show in Croke Park this weekend.
There’s no Diarmuid Connolly, no Paddy McBrearty – McManus could be the name on everyone’s lips after the opening four Super 8 games.
Or perhaps the outcome simply could come down to who adapts better to the surroundings of Croke Park.
The venue has not been a happy hunting ground for either. Kildare have won just five times in their last 22 visits, Monaghan’s Qualifier win over the Lilywhites four years ago was their first Championship win at the venue since 1930.
In all probability, the losing team tomorrow won’t get another chance to play at Croke Park again this season.
The Super 8s may guarantee each team three quarter-final games, but one slip up could still be fatal.
Conversely, one win can carry so much significance and it’s Monaghan who can lay down an early marker as they start their pursuit of a first All-Ireland semi-final in 30 years.
CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON SO FAR
Quarter-final: Tyrone 1-16 Monaghan 1-18
Semi-final: Fermanagh 1-8 Monaghan 0-10
ALL-IRELAND SFC QUALIFYING
Round two: Monaghan 5-21 Waterford 0-9
Round three: Monaghan 1-19 Leitrim 0-9
Round four: Monaghan 0-19 Laois 1-11
Quarter-final: Carlow 2-14 Kildare 1-10
ALL-IRELAND SFC QUALIFYING
Round one: Derry 2-14 Kildare 2-22
Round two: Longford 1-13 Kildare 1-16
Round three: Kildare 0-21 Mayo 0-19
Round four: Kildare 3-20 Fermanagh 0-18
Monaghan have had 19 different scores in their five Championship games to date. Conor McManus leads the way with 1-22 while Fintan Kelly has also scored in all five of their games.