Kevin McStay: Galway will push Dublin but not quite far enough
All-Ireland champions to subdue western challenge while Tyrone can edge northern derby
Conor McManus: The Monaghan man is the best forward in Ireland and will prove a major threat to Tyrone’s defence at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
For all of the talk about the top four counties in the league having made the All-Ireland semi-finals, I suspect that it’s coincidence as much as a reflection of the four definitive, best teams in the country.
All are there on merit after the Super 8s but ask yourself, would Jim Gavin and Dublin have felt relieved if Mayo and Kerry had qualified for the last four instead of any of the teams who actually did? I’m not convinced.
In terms of the quarter-final rounds though you have to acknowledge that Dublin and Galway qualified with a match to spare and Tyrone look the most improved team whereas Monaghan probably picked up most momentum over the three rounds of the Super 8s.
My first thoughts on Saturday’s semi-final, and having faced both teams this season, are that I’d like to fly a flag for Galway who have got some very rough treatment since losing at home to Monaghan.
Overall they have had their best summer and perhaps best team since 2001. They lost a competitive league final to Dublin after being unbeaten in the regulation matches, recaptured the Connacht title and reached a first All-Ireland semi-final in 17 years.
They play a Dublin team at a different point in their development, at the top of the cycle heading for four-in-a-row while Kevin Walsh is effectively just two years into his project with the defensive system.
When you change styles, you’re always on trial with your supporters. It’s fine as long as you’re winning but as soon as you lose a major match playing defensively – and last week was only their second defeat all year – it can be a difficult week or two afterwards.
Of course it wasn’t just any match and it meant that they’re the only semi-finalist coming in with a loss of momentum.
Their current lull in my view relates to three key players – Damien Comer and Johnny Heaney, whose form has dipped maybe as a result of the efforts in the league – and Paul Conroy, who picked up a dreadful injury and has been a very good utility player in the middle third.
These problems have been almost glossed over but they’ve meant that Shane Walsh is being asked to do more and probably more than he’s capable of doing right now.
The net effect is that they’re not scoring enough and that’s a difficulty for the weekend, as they will need everyone to step up in terms of scoring.
The depth of Dublin’s resources were on show last week, as we discovered, but that was well known. They’re definitely looking for this last 20 minutes that everyone’s talking about – Tyrone especially in the last week.
Galway should have a real go at Dublin’s kick-outs, aggressive man-to-man on the Dublin kick-out and ‘cheating’ off your man to see if you can cover just a bit more than him. It’s hugely demanding physically but also mentally because of the concentration levels required.
You can’t even celebrate a score because the restarts come so quickly that you can’t spare even seconds. You can do it on your own scores but won’t be able to do it on both wides and scores – it’s just too demanding.
That’s why teams press on set plays because you have time to push up on the defence before the kick-out. Defences have become so aware of this that the guy picking up the free taker gets as far away from him as possible.
The big target has to be to be within touching distance going into the end phase.
Dublin will stick to their process. Their hard work and ability to execute skills is second nature and you can’t see them not being in a fourth successive All-Ireland final.
The prevailing weather played a role when Monaghan beat Tyrone earlier in the season and may again on Sunday. Our group in Roscommon has always used Monaghan as a reference point: population, club profile et cetera and how they have positioned themselves as a top county.
At this stage they are six to eight years in development so they have learned staggering amounts from things like their quarter-final defeats. Even this year, the recovery from the Fermanagh defeat to reaching a first All-Ireland semi-final since the 1980s has been fantastic. Every year they have improved incrementally.
Malachy O’Rourke has added dimensions tactically and in recent years, players like Ryan McAnespie and Niall Kearns, but they are also a very mature team with the majority playing well and making big contributions.
Although Conor McManus is the best forward in all of Ireland and recognised as such they are not a team of stars and have excellent players who don’t get a lot of attention. Karl O’Connell is someone we’d always focus on if playing them; he has blistering pace, coming off the shoulder on a straight line and a really competitive attitude.
They’re also grizzled oul’ gauchos at this stage and comfortable with who they are. I expect they’ll defend the ‘D’ as zealously as they can, given that Tyrone don’t pose a long-distance threat.
I still think Mickey Harte’s team are more likely challengers for Dublin. Their five or six key players have a high level of fitness: Mattie Donnelly, Colm Cavanagh, Pádraig Hampsey, Peter Harte and Conor Meyler would have been another before he got injured.
They’ve huge energy and big tanks and, similar to Monaghan, they’re very comfortable with their system. Add in the timely return of Mark Bradley and Lee Brennan in recent weeks and they’re different gravy in terms of ability. They have been subs in recent games only because they were recovering from injury.
People have spoken a lot about the scoring threat off the Tyrone bench but you look for other things as well – assists and steals and tackles and subs that don’t turn over the ball. Bradley and Brennan tick all the boxes.
There won’t be much to separate the teams. I think there’ll be more scores in Tyrone, which will get them home, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Monaghan did it – and what a story that would be.