All-Ireland SFC semi-final: Cavan v Dublin
Throw-in: 5.30pm, Saturday. Venue: Croke Park. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin at 5pm. On TV: Live on RTÉ2 and Sky Sports Mix. Referee: Ciarán Branagan (Down).
Cavan arrive in Croke Park on Saturday evening as proud standard-bearers of Ulster and have already registered a small victory. On alphabetical listing, they’re entitled to choice of dressing-room and will also warm up into the Hill 16 End, traditionally the preserve of the Dubs.
In the past, there has been pandemonium when opponents have attempted to gazump the Northern End for their pre-match kick-about, most recently at this stage of the 2006 All-Ireland when a physio got lamped by a whizzing ball as both Dublin and Mayo practised into the same goal.
On this occasion, however, Dessie Farrell’s team will go about their preliminary business at the other end.
Once that’s over it becomes more problematic for Cavan. They’ve had an extraordinary championship to date, scrapping their way out of apparently impossible situations and putting in phenomenal second-half performances.
Although they were unluckily relegated from Division Two, they’ve already got two top-flight scalps, Monaghan and Donegal, dangling from their belts and come to this semi-final as a team that has consistently found a way to win.
Their aerial ability was showcased by a couple of breathtaking catches from Thomas Galligan rather than a more consistent domination of the middle third but their work rate and unflappability have been striking.
This will be a step up though because even if Donegal were expected to give Dublin a severe testing, it will be different for Mickey Graham’s team, who haven’t played regularly at Croke Park, as Donegal have, or had to face the All-Ireland champions.
Other areas where the going will get a little more difficult are the kick-outs, which didn’t go that well for Cavan in the Ulster final, as they conceded most of their opponents’ short restarts and didn’t do a lot more than break even on their own even if they made far superior use of what they got.
Reproduce those stats and they’re handing Dublin an awful lot of ball.
Graham's match-ups also worked really well, notably Jason McLaughlin's shackling of Ryan McHugh and he's expected to take Niall Scully for this. It's unlikely that they can shut down Dublin by man-marking alone but their collective defensive work has been outstanding.
Had you told Declan Bonner that Donegal would concede 1-13 in the final, he'd have assumed that his championship would still be up and running this weekend but they managed just 12 themselves, unable to make an impression on Cavan's startling second-half defensive statistics.
After half-time in their four championship matches, the Ulster champions have conceded just 10 points - 0-3 against Monaghan, 0-2 (Antrim), 0-2 (Down) and 0-3 (Donegal).
If that works against Dublin they’ll definitely be in with a shout.
What other ways might they make an impact? Aside from Galligan, they also have Gearóid McKiernan at centre forward, another target for long kick-outs and in a sector where Dublin are not strong in the air.
Eoin Murchan is expected to detail the non-stop Martin Reilly in a man-marking role but contesting high ball isn't a conspicuous strength for John Small or Robbie McDaid.
If only on a horses for courses basis – and there are also other good reasons to start an All Star – Brian Howard would be a useful addition to the half backs.
With an astute manager who has already dealt with raging favourites from Dublin when taking Mullinalaghta to a Leinster club title against Kilmacud, Graham will have a couple of curve balls for the champions – maybe one of those occasionally productive squeezes on the Cluxton kick-out given Cavan’s high-ball potential.
The key issues are however stacked in Dublin’s favour. Croke Park isn’t a confined track like Armagh and the Ulster champions will find themselves marking more space.
On precedent they won’t be able to rely on Dublin kicking the litany of wides that Donegal served up and defensive vigilance will be stretched to take care of Ciarán Kilkenny, Con O’Callaghan and Dean Rock of the established shooters.
Cavan’s big hope is that they can stifle the favourites and cause them problems, get to the first water break still in touch and build from there. Achieving that looks a tall order even in this year of wonderful possibilities.