After the anti-climax of last year’s inaugural running of the Super 8s, that would have struggled to get out of single digits on Rotten Tomatoes, we’re hopeful the 2019 version of the GAA’s super-hyped quarter-final round robin series provides at least a modicum of entertainment.
It was the final of the opening games last year (Galway vs Kerry in Croke Park: part challenge match/part kick in the balls) that left a particularly sour taste in the mouth, but this year we look ahead to Round Two in higher spirits – with one of the best matchups of the season upcoming.
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Last weekend’s opening round saw wins of four, thirteen, nine and ten points – not exactly closely-fought, edge-of-the-seat stuff – but there was much good football to enjoy nonetheless, and with the games taking place outside of Croke Park, the optics were just so much better.
Halting the Kingdom’s new groove
Kerry and Donegal both enjoyed entertaining victories in Group One last weekend. Declan Bonner’s outfit eventually broke past a tenacious Meath challenge, while Peter Keane – in his first season as Kerry manager – enjoyed his side’s most impressive win of the year, over a volatile Mayo.
The Kingdom now appear to be the clear challengers to Dublin’s throne, but…
A week is a long time in football!
As our weekly newsletter outlined on Monday morning, a much tougher and altogether different challenge awaits both counties this Sunday in Croke Park, when they play each other. The contrasting personalities of Keane’s and Bonner’s teams marks the game out as potentially the most interesting of the whole 2019 Super 8s series.
Donegal will bring a mature machine Kerry are yet to prove capable of dealing with.
The idea of David Clifford having acres of green grass to run into and cause untold mayhem for the second Sunday running, is not a realistic one against Donegal’s well-honed defence, marshalled by the sweeping skills of Hugh McFadden. It will be a similar challenge to the one Kerry faced against Galway in 2018, where they played into the hands of the Tribe’s defensive arc…
Only it will be more aggressive and physically charged. Donegal are the footballing equivalent of the FaceApp application – they’ve the potential to put 60 years on you, within the space of 70 minutes.
Donegal’s explosive and potent attack
The counter-attacking nature of Donegal’s play has received rave reviews in 2019. It exploits the capabilities of Jamie Brennan, Paddy McBrearty and Ryan McHugh, not to mention a supporting cast that have similar physical attributes. They are more explosive than Galway’s attack last season, or Cork’s in the Munster Final: Donegal drop so many bodies back (Brennan, McBrearty et al included) and break forward at such pace, that the assigning of individual man markers is almost irrelevant, and allows them to sustain the loss of a player like Eoghan Bán Gallagher. Kerry will need to be tuned-in as a defensive group to ensure Donegal’s strikers aren’t left in one-on-one situations.
With Shane Enright and Jason Foley featuring strongly, Kerry’s rearguard looked as stable and composed against Mayo has it has all year. But by this Sunday evening, we will have a much clearer answer on whether Kerry have actually developed a more solid defensive system.
Then there’s the Ulster champions’ kickout strategy. Ably deployed by human metronome Shaun Patton, it’s in stark contrast to what David Clarke produced in Killarney and will ask serious questions of Kerry’s management team in terms of whether or not they wish to continue with the high zonal press that worked so effectively against Mayo. Patton can bypass 70 yards worth of opposing player with one deft flick of his right boot.
Kerry’s winning formula
The good news for Peter Keane is that his side contains plenty of fires Donegal must attempt to put out.
David Clifford and Paul Geaney are capable of superlative things from within the tightest of spaces, while Stephen O’Brien’s tenacity and pace can create scores and frees from a standing start. The form of David Moran at midfield can also help mitigate against Donegal’s kickout expertise.
To win the game however, Kerry have to mix things up. As alluded to earlier, their direct kicking game that was beautiful to watch last Sunday, may need to be pared back a bit. The Kingdom will have to display much more patience in attack, to allow the opportune scoring moments to appear. Their aim is to both stretch and frustrate the Donegal defence.
It’s a challenge that might require the deep penetrative running abilities of the likes of Dara Moynihan or Diarmuid O’Connor (as well as O’Brien and Gavin White); players that are able to join attacks late, break the defensive line, then play the killer pass or take a score. While the likes of Clifford and O’Shea are getting manhandled elsewhere. And they will get manhandled! Throughout.
Also, the aforementioned players all possess the necessary attributes to aggressively press Donegal defenders and prevent them from reaching the middle third to setup a new attack.
Kerry have clearly got their groove back, and a confident mentality will be important heading to Croke Park. If they can get past a strong Donegal challenge they will be the standout option to stop Dublin’s bid for five-in-a-row.
Vice versa for a Donegal victory. But with a trip to Castlebar on deck for Bonner’s men, this Sunday’s game arguably carries more pressure for the Ulster champions, than their Munster counterparts.
Another fascinating battle awaits.
Elsewhere in Round Two
The manner of defeat at Fitzgerald Stadium puts Mayo’s progress to the last four in the ‘extremely precarious’ bracket. The scale of the loss in a tight group – a ten point deficit (1-22 to 0-15) – is bad enough, but what it will do to player and squad morale will be of bigger concern to James Horan ahead of Sunday’s trip to Croke Park to face Meath.
Perhaps Mayo’s qualifier run has resulted in some physical and mental erosion. Coming up against a fresh Kerry outfit on an energy-sapping day, Mayo were off the pace, slipping back into the bad habits that blighted parts of their displays against Roscommon and Armagh in particular – an undesirable mix of impatience in possession and defensive openness.
Following their performance in Ballybofey, Meath should arguably be in better mental shape this Sunday, but Mayo have enough attacking power to save their season. It may only be by one or two points though – Mayo victories generally are.
In Group One, Tyrone look well matched to beat Cork. Mickey Harte’s side don’t allow huge attacking waves to break through their middle (at least not since they lost to Donegal), so Cork’s Ruairi Deane/Brian Hurley axis won’t get space to shine. That is a huge problem for Cork, and a loss would in all likelihood knock them out.
Following that fixture at HQ, Roscommon play Dublin. Another double-digits win for Jim Gavin’s men looks inevitable. The Rossies needed a result against Tyrone to keep their chances alive.
We’re hurtling towards the most frustrating of dead rubbers in Round Three: Tyrone v Dublin in Healy Park.