Donegal’s hunger to keep them at the top in keenly awaited Ulster showdown

Ulster SFC: Donegal v Tyrone preview

At last it’s here. Throughout the league it became commonplace for Donegal manager Jim McGuinness to direct much of his media deliberations towards 26th May to the extent that even within the county people wondered what he would do should he wake up on 27th May having exited the championship. We’re about to find out if that will be necessary.

Donegal’s favouritism is the usual leap of faith that is invested in All-Ireland champions. The team’s intention to keep ticking over during the league came apart agonisingly in injury-time on the last day and relegation followed.

McGuinness’s affected indifference to this fate doesn’t mean that he was wrong in the short term, as for the first time since last September he picks his strongest team. Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey’s return having played no competitive matches isn’t the main concern.

Lacey’s so capable of sustaining high levels of form that if he is physically fit he’ll slot in without difficulty but the cumulative impact of an absence of game time for him and limited exposure for others plus injury concerns makes this an anxious time for the champions.

Given that McGuinness is unlikely to have taken chances on the physical capacities of the team the big issue will be that which confronts all champions: how have they weathered the mental demands of winning the All-Ireland?

The one comparison between the teams, the league match in Omagh, is unsatisfactory because Michael Murphy’s dismissal before half-time unbalanced the contest. Tyrone were actually more removed from full-strength back in March than Donegal, of whose All-Ireland side Lacey was the only one not to play, and Mickey Harte’s selection looks strong.

A vastly experienced half-back line of the McMahon brothers and Conor Gormley will screen the full backs with Joe McMahon likely to be supplementing Conor Clarke in his task of marking Murphy. Any lack of mobility in the line won't bite as deeply on the smaller Ballybofey pitch.

Centrefield is likely to be more of a problem area for Tyrone. The one sector of the side that hasn’t fully fired during the league, it will be difficult for the Cavanaghs to impose themselves on an area in which a congestion charge would yield the Ulster Council a fortune.

Seán Cavanagh will find space at a premium and will be watched hawkishly wherever he goes, as his presence is a significant addition to the team after injury wiped out his championship last year.

His comments during the week to the effect that referee Joe McQuillan will need eyes in the back of his head won’t be news to the Cavan official who took charge of the league match in Omagh and awarded 50 frees and reached for 13 yellow cards, none of which was hastily flashed.

A year ago Tyrone stayed with Donegal’s high tempo for about 40 minutes but the challengers were distinctly second best on the day.

They are improved now with Niall Morgan and his long-distance free kicking, which made a significant contribution to Tyrone’s win in March, will be a caution to the Donegal defence.

The problem for Mickey Harte’s team is that they will face a Donegal defence on red alert and Stephen O’Neill will need the husbandry of a small farmer to make small spaces pay. The Donnellys, Mark and Matthew, whose energy and confidence has been a feature this season, will pose problems in the half forwards but can Tyrone as a collective step up the levels of intensity that won last year’s All-Ireland?

The view here is that they will struggle to meet that target and the more relevant question is have Donegal the same commitment to staying on the mountain top as they showed on the ascent?

Enough to keep them there this afternoon.

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