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Red Hands look primed to grab Anglo-Celt Cup but Armagh will push them all the way

Armagh's Paul Hughes and Tyrone's Peter Harte in action during the Allianz Football league Division One clash in May. The Red Hands look the pick of the contenders for this year's Ulster Championship while Armagh look best equipped to make their first final apperance for 13 years Picture: Philip Walsh

While 2020 may have been the year the world was turned upside down, the upsets it brought look unlikely to be repeated this year according to Kevin Madden. The Irish News columnist gives his assessment of the runners and riders for this year's Ulster Senior Football Championship and is predicting to see a familiar name on the Anglo-Celt Cup...

FOR at last decade or so, we have been told that to have any chance of winning a provincial title or challenging for an All-Ireland, you need to be up there plying your trade in the top division of the Allianz Football League.

Then came 2020, the year of the pandemic, when nothing seemed real, and at the same time, the seemingly ridiculous could all of a sudden become a reality.

Step forward Cavan and Tipperary who, after winning their respective provincial titles, went on to kick-off their 2021 campaigns by getting relegated to Division Four.

Let us take stock of that for a second. The current Ulster and Munster champions are now ranked in the bottom eight teams in the country. But before you Antrim, Derry, Down and Fermanagh men contemplate getting all giddy about the prospect of some giant-killing , remember that the previous 11 Ulster Championship titles have been shared between the big three of Donegal, Tyrone and Monaghan.

THE CONTENDERS

In all likelihood the winner of this year’s Ulster Championship will come from one of those three - Tyrone, Donegal or Monaghan.

Tyrone have the more straightforward task of getting to a semi-final by beating what looks like an out-of-sorts Cavan team.

I honestly believe the thrashing that Tyrone suffered at the hands of Kerry will prove to be an important lesson. Of course, it exposed massive defensive frailties that will need addressed, but those players are much better than that performance suggested.

They have neither time nor warm-up games to fix this. Even though it is largely the same group of players who played under Mickey Harte, this new management team and their players look like they may need time to find their footballing identity.

Fergal Logan and Brian Dooher have made no secret of the fact that they want to play a more expansive style, which I presume means leaving three or four forwards up the pitch when the game is still a contest and Tyrone are not in possession of the ball.

How those forwards fit into the defensive script is still going to be critical. There is a subtle difference between planting 14 or 15 men behind the ball and having 14 or 15 men working relentlessly to get the ball back when out of possession.

The latter involves having pressure coming from both sides and defending more of the pitch which, in turn, will allow for a more offensive shape once the turnover comes.

Watch how Dublin play when out of possession and you’ll understand how they always seem to have kick-pass options through the lines when they counter-attack.

Donegal have the trickier task as they’ll have to deal with both Down and Derry.

As they dance their way through the ice, Bonner’s men will be conscious they will still have to play well in order to avoid slipping up to these underdogs.

Paddy Tally’s men are being given absolutely no chance by the bookies but I don’t see them rolling over that easily.

We all know how important Michael Murphy is to Donegal. Without him fully fit, I doubt they would be able to go the full way. Should they get over Down, a seriously improved Derry outfit will be chomping at the bit, and they will need to play very well to beat them. Donegal’s path to another meeting with Tyrone is far from straightforward.

Like Donegal, Monaghan will still be smarting from last year’s first round defeat to Cavan. After an extra-time win against Galway to stay in Division One, spirits will be high in the camp. They should have too much for Fermanagh, but in those clutch moments against top opposition, will they still look solely to Conor McManus for inspiration?

Should Conor McCarthy and Jack McCarron bring their League form to Championship, they too have a serious chance.

Should Conor McCarthy bring his League form into the Ulster Championship then Monaghan will have a better chance of winning this year's provincial title

THE CHASING PACK

DOWN did well to retain their Division Two status after seeing off Laois by seven points on the final day. Expectations of beating Donegal will be very low, which always makes a county with such tradition, a very dangerous animal. That said, Donegal will be on their guard and should have too much.

Antrim have achieved their main goal of gaining promotion from Division Four in impressive style in Enda McGinley’s first year. They have much work to do defensively but getting the balance right will take time.

The Saffrons have some terrific forwards who will ask plenty of questions of Armagh but I feel that turning over the Division One outfit will be a step too far.

It looked like Fermanagh might slip back into the doldrums of Division Four after Derry gave them a trimming in the National League but in typical fashion, they pulled out a result on the last day to stay up.

The Ernemen shocked Monaghan against all the odds in 2018, but I just can’t see Ricey’s men repeating that result this year.

Outside of Armagh, Derry are next team capable of causing an upset or two, but are they are bit like a horse winning novice chases in convincing fashion, before heading to Cheltenham to realise the fences are too big?

They are a team on an upward curve capable of taking a scalp or two. For Cavan, it’s pretty depressing to think that as reigning champions no one is giving them a pup’s chance. But that is the reality and I cannot see them getting past Tyrone.

THE VERDICT

Armagh haven’t been in a final since 2008 but I believe they will break the mould this time and reach the decider. But who will they face? Tyrone have major questions to answer around their defensive system. Will Cathal McShane be ready in time for Donegal should that pairing emerge? Can Conor McKenna find his form again? I feel that these things can fall Tyrone’s way.

TYRONE to beat ARMAGH in the final

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