All-Ireland SFC quarter-final
Derry v Clare, Saturday
Croke Park, 3.45 [Live, Sky Sports Arena]
Clare face into a very different challenge to the last round when they dispatched Roscommon with a late explosive surge. The Connacht finalists were very much a forward driven team whereas the new Ulster champions are built from the other end of the field.
The teams met in Division Two of the league last February when Derry were comprehensive winners. Clare were at home and kept it competitive up until half time, but the Ulster team pulled away afterwards. Colm Collins was unhappy at the extent to which his team colluded in their own downfall. The two second-half goals that spelled out the difference between them came as a result of Clare kick-outs that got turned over.
Much has happened since then, primarily Derry’s capture of a first Ulster title since 1998. The campaign has been a triumph for Rory Gallagher, whose plotting a course has been so successful.
They will find this more taxing in the sense that the contest comes with expectations whereas their admirable route through Ulster was made up of three Division One teams, Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal, all of whom have now been eliminated themselves.
Clare won’t make it easy for them even if they do settle into a mirror formation. Keelan Sexton on form is a handful, as he showed the last day. Brendan Rogers, however, has spent the weeks since the Ulster final gathering plaudits for his marshalling of Michael Murphy.
Cathal O’Connor at centre-field more than paid his way against Roscommon but that sector is a strength for Derry as well, with Conor Glass having an outstanding season.
If Clare start as well as they did two weeks ago it will exert pressure on the favourites but they have a habit of checking out of matches for a phase in the second half that nearly buried them the last day and also against Meath.
They have showed a really ruthless capability when matches are there to be won, as Jamie Malone’s carefully conceived one-two to create a shooting opportunity and exquisite finish showed.
Ultimately, though, Derry’s strong and well practised system of counter-attacking has been road tested at a very high level, and although they aren’t the most experienced Croke Park team, the pitch will suit their game and even though their opponents had a positive outing there just two weeks ago, it’s unlikely to be enough.