All-Ireland SFC semi-final: Dublin v Mayo, Croke Park, Saturday, 6.0 – Live RTÉ2, Sky Sports Arena
For a fixture that has over the past 10 years become synonymous with the highest level of championship football, the contest has declined this year into a slow-bicycle race between the reigning champions’ crisis of confidence and the challengers’ injuries.
Oisín Mullin is left out of the Mayo XV after suffering a quad injury - it’s a devastating blow for the Connacht champions. He was the best performing rookie in last year’s All-Ireland final and deservedly ended up with an All Star.
His return to Croke Park a few weeks ago for the provincial final copper-fastened that reputation.
Dublin come into this on the back of their least impressive provincial campaign since before the Gavin era. It’s not just that winning margins were greatly reduced – their cumulative from three matches was 22 points; they won last year’s final alone, by 21.
It’s the decline in scoring that should be a worry. Compared to the previous two championships, their average per match is down a massive eight points. Defences at All-Ireland level tend to be tighter and Dublin’s average score in Leinster was running this year at just 0-19.
Andy Moran used to make the point that Mayo needed 0-20 to beat Dublin and that whereas they were getting close to it, they never actually managed that score. Now it looks like they can revise that downwards.
For the first time in Dessie Farrell’s tenure Dublin come into a match with the chill feeling that unless they perform, they will lose.
The gathering gloom around Dublin is also based on the form of key players. Brian Fenton has been labouring in the middle, Ciarán Kilkenny has been in and out of matches and Con O'Callaghan's productivity has dropped alarmingly. But he works so hard to cover ground and get in the right position that an upturn in fortune is always a possibility.
There was just one display that hinted at the team’s best but it was confined to the first half of the semi-final against Meath. After half-time they were a disaster.
Mayo have the experience of last year's All-Ireland final when they ran the champions to five points, admittedly without ever suggesting that they might win it, and did so in the absence of Patrick Durcan for the second half after he had shackled Kilkenny, who freed from the constraint, made hay from then on.
Durcan is back but arguably the three best performers that evening are all gone: Mullin, the retired goalkeeper David Clarke, who saved his best kicking display for the final match of his career, and Cillian O'Connor, top scorer in last year's championship and a veteran of these clashes, who got 0-4 from play and marks.
O'Connor's place-kicking role has been well taken up by Ryan O'Donoghue, who started last year's final well but whose range mightn't extend as far, leaving Rob Hennelly to deal with the longer frees and 45s.
Corner back Chris Barrett, now retired, did a fine job on Dean Rock, keeping him scoreless from play after the early goal in the opening seconds – which wasn't his doing.
Mayo’s energy and athleticism was hugely impressive against Galway but they started so weakly that their opponents were able to bankroll a wretched second half on the basis of it. Despite adding just 0-3 after the break, Galway were still hanging around until Matthew Ruane’s goal in the 67th minute.
Ruane’s form is a cause of optimism for Mayo, especially as they did such a good job on Dublin’s centrefield in the first half of last December’s All-Ireland final, but again circumstances have come to Dublin’s assistance.
The biggest plus from the Leinster final against Kildare was the return of John Small and Eoin Murchan from long-term injuries. Getting back two All Stars has obvious benefits for the defence but also elsewhere.
Last year the frustrating of Fenton, well executed by Diarmuid O'Connor but assisted by Clarke's kick-outs and Mayo's general swarm in the middle, came to a halt when Brian Howard entered the lists at half-time.
His power in the air gave Dublin a second target and their opponents a second problem. Stretched between the two – in a way they hadn’t been by James McCarthy’s more mobile role – Mayo struggled and Fenton powered into the game.
Increased defence options mean that Dublin would be well advised to get Howard into the middle to join his club-mate and leave McCarthy to track Aidan O’Shea’s comings and goings.
Ultimately, who is to be more trusted to compile a winning score? Dublin have proven talent in uncertain form and an attack that no longer looks more than the sum of its parts. Mayo are simply flat-out, unproven.
The champions are the safer bet but it’s still a gamble.
MAYO: Rob Hennelly; Pádraig O'Hora, Lee Keegan, Michael Plunkett; Paddy Durcan, Stephen Coen, Eoghan McLaughlin; Matthew Ruane, Conor Loftus; Diarmuid O'Connor, Kevin McLoughlin, Darren McHale; Tommy Conroy, Aidan O'Shea, Ryan O'Donoghue.
DUBLIN: Evan Comerford; Michael Fitzsimons, David Byrne, Jonny Cooper; James McCarthy, John Small, Seán McMahon; Brian Fenton, Brian Howard; Paddy Small, Ciarán Kilkenny, Niall Scully; Dean Rock, Con O'Callaghan, Cormac Costello.