The weekend’s football previews: all eyes on Mayo and Galway

Cork face Laois and Cavan take on Tyrone before Connacht rivals clash in Limerick

Aidan O’Shea’s Mayo take on Galway on Saturday night. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Aidan O’Shea’s Mayo take on Galway on Saturday night. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Saturday

Cork v Laois
Semple Stadium, 5pm

The increased value in reaching the last eight of the All-Ireland championship can be seen in the elevated interest levels in this final qualifier round. Yes, teams take a chance that a spanking is on the cards somewhere along the line but, for instance, Roscommon have come back a year later having won a provincial title this summer.

Cork and Laois are aware of the benefits on offer but the former look a slightly better, more organic fit for the Super 8s. There isn’t a whole heap between the teams in terms of championship achievement apart from Cork’s feisty display against perennial tormentors, Kerry.

If that is a benchmark against which Ronan McCarthy’s will judge improvement, they can push on and win this. If it was simply a howl of defiance born of constant humiliation, Laois have the wit to progress. They have some fine forwards between the Kingstons, Donie and Paul, Evan O’Carroll and the evergreen Ross Munnelly although they rarely appear to click all together. At centrefield they have physique and ability with John O’Loughlin and Kieran Lillis and the contest here will be both interesting and critical.

Cork improved greatly against Kerry in the middle. Ian Maguire and Killian O’Hanlon were effective on re-starts and rampaged through the middle, in concert with the excellent Ruairí Deane. If the loose finishing against Kerry can be ameliorated, Cork are well capable of exploiting a Laois defence that Offaly found penetrable.
Last meeting: This is the counties’ first senior championship meeting.
Just the ticket: Unreserved: adult €25.00, juveniles (U16) €5. Students , senior citizens €20.
Odds: Dublin 8/15, Meath 21/10 and 15/2 the draw.
Verdict: Cork to win.

Cavan v Tyrone Clones, 5pm – Sky Sports Arena

Since their inconspicuous exit from the Ulster championship, Tyrone have been fortifying themselves through the back door apparently getting stronger every day out. Posting 2-22 in Newbridge is never an easy feat. Peter Harte, an early black card casualty in that loss to Donegal, underlined his central role in making Tyrone tick both on scoreboard and on play.

Tyrone have reverted to type in these knock-out games, with Colm Cavanagh dropping back to play sweeper and Darreny McCurry featuring as the end-point of the rapacious counter attacks at which the Red Hand excel. The return to from of Niall Sludden will also play a big part in their campaign. Whether Tyrone return to the two-pronged attack in the later stages of the All-Ireland is moot until they reach that stage.

Cavan were outplayed by Donegal for long periods of the Ulster final but still managed to advertise their keen nose for a score and Mickey Graham has had plenty of time to convince his charges of the magnitude of this game: a place in the Super 8s at the expense of last year’s All-Ireland finalists would be another big step forward. Cavan have not had a championship win against Tyrone since 1983 and Mickey Harte’s team is skilled practitioners in these high-stakes qualifiers. Dara McVeety has emerged as one of the most exciting attacking talents in the game and in Killian Clarke and Gearóid McKeirnan, Cavan have natural on-field leaders. Cavan have developed a running game that can be hard to counter and Graham has liberated them into becoming an adventurous, unpredictable attacking force. If they can improve on their shooting percentages here, they will present a thorny prospect for Tyrone – but one which Mickey Harte’s team should cope with. Last meeting: Fourth round qualifier in the 2018 All-Ireland championship in Enniskillen, which finished Tyrone 0-18 Cavan 1-12.

Just the ticket: Adults €25. Juvenile €5. Tickets available at match depending on availability.
Verdict: Tyrone.

Galway v Mayo Gaelic Grounds, 7.0, Sky Sports Arena

This evening promises one of those seismic qualifiers matches, resembling a bout between two punch-drunk fighters one of whom will be knocked out and the other miraculously revived for further contests.

Coincidentally, Galway used a similar match 17 years ago against Armagh to get their ultimately successful All-Ireland campaign back up and running, having also lost to Roscommon in Connacht. It represents a better opportunity for Kevin Walsh’s team than for James Horan’s. This might appear a questionable view given Mayo’s typically irrepressible struggles against Down and Armagh when contrasted with the feebleness of Galway’s Connacht final performance.

But it has nearly always been the case when these counties meet – within reason – form isn’t a reliable pathfinder, which leaves this in the balance apart from two issues that can tilt it in Galway’s direction. The first and most obvious is Mayo’s injury woes – approaching the territory of “‘Three Wheels on My Wagon” – which were exacerbated last week in Castlebar. This has wrecked their centrefield options - not admittedly, Galway’s strongest suit – but by extension their middle third presence with the absence of Diarmuid O’Connor and Lee Keegan. Ultimately no team can afford to shed tested, senior players at this rate and still emerge unscathed.

Secondly, Galway’s record in recent years against Mayo has been rock-steady. There has never been much between them but the former’s slicker, more accurate forwards have tended to get the job done – as with Shane Walsh and Antaine Ó Laoi in the league last March.

Admittedly, important physical influences like Damien Comer, back in club action but with no competitive intercounty activity for nearly a year, and Paul Conroy, similarly re-entering the water at club level, can hardly exert optimal influence in this. All Star Ian Burke probably relies on Comer’s presence for full impact. Galway however do have some players returning to full fitness and Cillian McDaid is expected to start. The issue for them is the damage to morale from the second-half meltdown in the Connacht final. Add that to a less than convincing run-in to the final and the suspicion that Kevin Walsh is at the bar in the last-chance saloon and it’s easy to see how Galway may not be able to find a response.

This is the Rubicon for both teams. Failure to cross it means the game is up and the view here is Galway are marginally more likely to find a way.

Last meeting: May 13th, 2018, Connacht quarter-final, MacHale Park, Castlebar Galway 1-12, Mayo 0-12.
Just the ticket: Unreserved: adult €25, juveniles (U16) €5. Students and senior citizens €20.
Odds: Mayo 10/11, Galway 6/5 and 15/2 the draw.
Verdict: Galway to win

Sunday

Meath v Clare Portlaoise, 2pm, RTÉ 1

Most players and managers will tell you every team is only as good as their last game. For Meath the only hope is they’re not as bad as their last one – a 16-point defeat to Dublin was made feel all the worse by the manner of it. The wet, slippery conditions may well have played some part, yet doesn’t explain the inaccuracy in front of goal; Mickey Newman had a nightmare and certainly can’t be as bad again, Brian Menton their only other scorer in the sum tally of 0-4.

Andy McEntee must know they’re not that bad, promotion to Division One seeming to mark some real progress this season. Still there will be some psychological baggage brought to Portlaoise tomorrow, especially given the fact the beaten provincial finalists have for the last two years struggled against the round three winners (three losing, only one winning).

Still drawing against Clare is a lot less daunting that starring down a Tyrone or a Mayo. Since their six-point Munster semi-final defeat to Kerry, no great worries about the manner of it, Clare have regain momentum over Leitrim and then Westmeath, but the worry for manager Colin Collins is Meath have won the previous three league meetings, two by some distance: 0-21 to 0-7 in 2018, and 3-19 to 1-13 in 2017.

Clare certainly boasted a better spread of scorers in the last game, six players contributing to the 1-13 to 0-15 win over Westmeath in Mullingar, including 1-2 from key man David Tubrid. They are playing with spirit and verve and Meath can’t afford to let them get a start on them, as they’ve been finishing strong too.

Ultimately it comes down to Meath not being as bad as they were against Dublin, and McEntee can still count on a decent defensive showing against Dublin in the first half. It’s possible McEntee’s greater ambition anyway was to make the Super 8s, and this game should at least prove if they’re good enough for that. Last meeting: A first championship meeting, Meath and Clare met in Division Two this year, Meath winning 1-12 to 1-7.

Just the ticket: Adults €25. Juvenile €5.
Verdict: Meath

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