Monaghan and Armagh in for another derby tussle
All-Ireland SFC qualifiers round two: Monaghan v Armagh (Clones, 7pm tonight)
GETTING out of Ulster has proved impossible for these two counties so far, despite defeats – but staying in the All-Ireland series will be even tougher still.
Clones used to be a 'home from home' for Armagh, but they couldn't beat Cavan there in two attempts this year.
St Tiernach's Park is Monaghan's home, of course, and they did knock out Fermanagh at this venue in round one, but they won't approach this latest derby with any great confidence.
Long-serving Monaghan player Vinny Corey has been involved in plenty of Armagh-Monaghan clashes. Indeed, it's arguably 'the' derby for him as a Clontibret man, with Castleblayney and Carrickmacross also in that eastern end of the county.
Although both have only been beaten by Cavan, Corey suggests that their respective journeys to get to this meeting have differed significantly:
"Armagh are definitely tough opposition. When you go out of provincial competition a team never knows where you're at. Fermanagh was a tough one, tricky for us. First round of the qualifiers you just want to get over the line and we did that.
"With Armagh you think, 'This is just as tricky as the first one was'. We didn't come out of the Fermanagh game with any real form or confidence in the performance, and Armagh are coming in after a few great games in the Ulster Championship, so it's a tough job."
Monaghan made a bright beginning to 2019, beating All-Ireland champions Dublin in this setting, but after that they won only one more Division One game, albeit against arch-rivals Cavan.
That didn't help them come the Ulster Championship, however, although Corey bridled slightly at the suggestion that the win over Dublin was 'a false dawn' and that otherwise Monaghan should worry as they haven't clicked this year:
"I wouldn't say 'worry', it's a waste of time worrying, but there is probably concern when you go out of the provincials. We got a bad start against Cavan, then played better in the second half, but still not overly well.
"Going into the Fermanagh game, there were a few factors: first of all it was Fermanagh and you're never going to overly shine, it's not that sort of game, it's just about getting the result; and it's the first round of the qualifiers, you don't know where you're at."
There's merit in that argument: Monaghan thrashed the Ernemen in the Championship in both 2015 and 2017 but Fermanagh have been a very different proposition under Rory Gallagher.
The same can be said of Cavan this year, under new manager Mickey Graham - but Armagh found it easier to score against the Breffni Blues, notching the equivalent of 17 points in both meetings, though the first of those did go to extra time. The Orchardmen also racked up 2-17 in victory over Down, albeit after extra time too.
Their firepower is highly impressive: Rian O'Neill, Jamie Clarke, Andy Murnin, Stefan Campbell, Rory Grugan, Jemar Hall, Ethan Rafferty, Jarlath Og Burns and Niall Grimley from midfield, even the goal threat of the counter-attacking Mark Shields and the creativity of Aidan Forker from deeper positions.
In contrast, Monaghan have struggled to score: just 12 points against Cavan and 1-10 against Fermanagh.
Monaghan are a conundrum in that regard. There's plenty of attacking talent to back up star forward Conor McManus, including Conor McCarthy, Jack McCarron, Ryan McAnespie, Shane Carey, and Stephen O'Hanlon, as well as scoring power from the likes of Kieran Hughes, Fintan Kelly, Corey himself, Karl O'Connell, and Drew Wylie, if he features.
Yet if McManus is restricted then the team tends to find itself in difficulties. Padraig Faulkner and Che Cullen did the containment jobs for Cavan and Fermanagh respectively; Armagh must decide who takes on that task tonight.
Patrick Burns might be the man, perhaps James Morgan, but whoever is handed that responsibility will require plenty of help. At least Armagh will have the experienced Brendan Donaghy available again after serving a one-match ban.
Both sides have had almost a fortnight since their last outing and that may be especially helpful to Armagh prodigy Jarlath Og Burns, who was briefly hospitalised after suffering from dehydration in their replay loss to Cavan.
While the big question surrounds Monaghan's attack, the concern for Armagh continues to be their 'game management', or perceived lack of that quality.
Armagh have failed to make numerical superiority, on the pitch and on the scoreboard, translate into wins, apart from against Down, and even then they should never have let that game go to extra time. Their inability to protect leads almost cost them in Newry, and did against Cavan in Clones.
Still, Kieran McGeeney has a very good record in the qualifiers, both with Kildare and his native county, which is another reason why he and his men may come into Clones feeling fairly buoyant.
However, there's a sense that Monaghan's greater experience of winning major matches might just see them through another tense tussle.
The hosts are favourites with the bookies but they will always have their doubters, throwing the jibe that Monaghan are prone to slipping to unexpected losses, although Armagh hardly come into that category now.
Corey responded to that with a considered certainty: "The only thing I can say about that is this: every time, we bounce back."
There'll be no recovery for the losers tonight, who will not only be out of Ulster but the All-Ireland reckoning too.