Nicky English: Liberated Clare can take off but it may be a bumpy flight

Champions Limerick, strengthened by return of Casey and Lynch, look formidable in Sunday’s semi-final

As can happen, the ‘crossover’ evidence from the All-Ireland quarter-finals was a bit of a surprise in that the Leinster teams outperformed expectations. Galway actually won – admittedly with help from Cork – but they showed surprising grit and opportunism.

Wexford put themselves in a winning position against Clare and were unfortunate to lose their star forward Rory O’Connor but they hadn’t quite enough to make it to the finish.

I’ve been a consistent admirer of Clare this summer and their performances have made them the most credible challengers to Limerick in the past three years. In their defence, the Wexford match was always going to be a potential banana skin after the exertions of the Munster final and the melodrama of the on-off again suspensions.

It was hardly a major surprise that they underperformed but it was immensely to their credit that they survived, especially with Tony Kelly misfiring in the early stages, missing a string of frees and just not on his game. Kudos to him as well for impacting in the decisive, later stages in his more familiar guise as a tour de force.

For Clare in general, I think the experience will liberate them and mentally free them up, they’ll play with more abandon on Saturday afternoon.

There are no secrets about Kilkenny. They’ll be what it says on the tin. They come as Leinster champions, if not quite the undisputed best team in the province after two defeats, but is there anyone who believes Clare can afford any slippage without their opponents taking full advantage?

Kilkenny will harass, turn up the heat, inflict that claustrophobic hooking and blocking defence and TJ Reid will pick off points all afternoon if they are gifted that position.

Admittedly I only saw that at its best in the defeat of Dublin in Parnell Park and it hasn’t been on display since but, under Brian Cody, they rarely leave Croke Park wondering and sustained challenges are a given.

This is more about Clare. There were other positives from the quarter-final apart from the late recovery. Brian Lohan got a real return from his bench, which now has depth.

Cian Nolan at corner back was impressive whereas Aron Shanagher, Shane Meehan and Mark Rodgers added value to the attack and Shanagher made a real case for inclusion. That’s a significant issue for Lohan because he needs a greater spread of scorers than two weeks ago when the likes of Peter Duggan and David Fitzgerald suffered a fall-off from their Munster final productivity levels.

Kilkenny are also well equipped at the back where Mikey Butler and Huw Lawlor won’t be taken easily by anyone.

There are two other issues for Clare. One is their free-taking. Do they go again with Tony Kelly after taking the responsibility off him in the last two matches? I would, if only because Duggan didn’t exactly make a strong case for being entrusted with the placed ball but it’s a worry going into an All-Ireland semi-final.

Two is concern about their goalkeeper, Eibhear Qulligan. His distribution is outstanding but he’s getting caught for goals that shouldn’t have passed him.

Croke Park will suit Clare’s pace and athleticism but they need to get away from Kilkenny because there’s no team better in a close contest.

On the basis that the All-Ireland quarter-final was a reaction to the Munster final and not evidence that they have peaked and are now in decline, I think Clare are well capable of winning this.

On Sunday, Limerick arrive in Croke Park still the undisputed number one team in the country. Even though not quite at full strength in Munster, they survived everything, including Clare throwing the kitchen sink at them in the final.

I was a bit surprised at how hard they went for all the matches, particularly the dead rubber in Ennis but we’ll see if that leaves a legacy.

In my view the only time we saw them at full tilt was against Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh back in April. They now face a Galway side that will reflect on a strong league record against their opponents as well as the winter All-Ireland semi-final of two years ago when they were level in injury-time before losing.

They have certain assets. Henry Shefflin has instilled a commitment to hard work and they are big and strong although less so now that Gearóid McInerney is probably out. But the Cooneys, Mannions and Daithí Burke can more than match up to Limerick.

The first problem is however that they’re not as quick nor as athletic. The second is that their attack has become unsustainably reliant on Conor Whelan, who’s having a fabulous year but he’s now up against the best defence in hurling and Seán Finn or Mike Casey will pick him up. On top of which Limerick will likely go zonal and Barry Nash will be free to lend a hand.

They are improving at midfield where Will O’Donoghue was more himself in the Munster final and Darragh O’Donovan has been having a good year. For Galway Tom Monaghan was closer to his earlier, better form against Cork and their midfield was also back in business but this is a really difficult area to get on top of the champions.

Limerick’s forwards have also been coming to the boil nicely: Aaron Gillane, Séamus Flanagan and Gearóid Hegarty all had crucial inputs in the Munster final.

John Kiely was asked about the four-week gap for provincial champions – which last weekend suggested had impacted to some extent in the football quarter-finals – and he said that they were glad of it.

When you see the long-awaited return to the match-day panel of Peter Casey and Cian Lynch, he may well have a point. Being able to add two current All Stars, including the Hurler of the Year to a Munster-winning panel underlines how strong the Limerick challenge for the county’s first three-in-a-row is going to be.

Too strong for Galway, for a start.