Mayo and Donegal will go head-to-head for the third championship in four years in Croke Park in Saturday evening’s All-Ireland quarter-final.
Both teams have been on similar path for the past five seasons. Jim McGuiness and James Horan transformed the fortunes of their respective counties during this period but both have now moved on.
Their legacy remains though as their success’ since 2011 has continued under new management teams. While Mayo secured a fifth provincial title in-a-row this summer, the Tír Chonaill men lost their Ulster title to Monaghan by the narrowest of margins.
But while Donegal secured their elusive All-Ireland title in 2012, Mayo have failed to get over the line on the third Sunday in September. They would surely swap all of those Connacht crowns to taste the sweetest of success’ on All-Ireland final day.
After last year’s All-Ireland final loss Donegal will be determined to return to Gaelic football’s showpiece but they go into Saturday’s quarter-final as underdogs.
They do so on the basis of their Ulster final loss but they regrouped in the second half against Galway to answer the questions put them. This suggested that the steel and determination exemplified over the past couple of seasons has not deserted them just yet.
Key figures in the side such as Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and Odhran MacNiallais responded after a disappointing display in Clones. Murphy was in imperious form as scored an inspirational long range point and then delicately set up Ryan McHugh for a goal of incredible allure.
McFadden appeared to have a new lease of life as he returned to the turf of GAA HQ and the elegant MacNiallais drove his side forward from the middle of the park as his reputation grows with every passing game.
It remains to be seen though can they reproduce the final 35 minutes of last week’s qualifier against a Mayo side that completely obliterated Sligo in the Connacht final with a performance that scented of all the hallmarks of total football.
While Aidan O’Shea took all the plaudits for this towering performance at full-forward in scoring 3-4, Cillian O’Connor chipped with 1-6 as he quietly enters the stage of the All-Ireland series.
Mayo appear to have tweaked their system slightly with the rampaging the O’Connor aided by his younger brother Diarmuid while Tom Parsons has been revitalised at midfield, freeing up O’Shea to move into his more dangerous forward role.
While Mayo’s firepower has improved, the question marks remain over their defence. They conceded 2-11 against a distinctly average Sligo and the concession of sloppy goals at key stages over the past couple of seasons has ensured their wait to lift Sam Maguire has been extended.
The full court press style of the Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly’s men leaves them exposed behind their own 45 metre line at times and it will intriguing to see how the defensive minded Donegal attempt to counter act this tactic. If Mayo fail to adjust their system seen on their last journeys to Croke Park, they could once again come up short in search of ultimate glory.
The key battle looks set to take place between Michael Murphy and Ger Cafferkey. They Mayo full-back struggled against Kieran Donaghy at the crucial stages of last season and will be interesting to see if he can cope with the power and strength of the Donegal’s warrior in chief. Going one-on-one with a player of Murphy’s ability might not be an astute move from Mayo who will possibly look to revert to a sweeper system.
At the opposite end of the field Aidan O’Shea will pose a similar threat to the Donegal defence where Neil McGee will be attempting to nullify his influence. Flaws do exist in the Donegal defence though as exemplified by Conor McManus and the tireless Monaghan attack.
With the form of O’Shea and O’Connor as well as emergence of the extra attacking prowess in Cillian’s brother, Diarmuid, Mayo might just have enough to get over Rory Gallaghers men in what will be a titanic battle.
In team news, Donegal will wait until the last minute to name their said as they wait on the fitness of key defenders Eamonn McGee and Karly Lacey. McGee is expected to take his place at corner back while Lacey is still struggling with an injury since being substituted early in the Ulster finals with Gallagher rating his chances of playing at 50/50 this week.
Mayo have named an unchanged side with Seamus O’Shea recovering from the hamstring injury he picked up in the Connacht decider. His brother Aidan has been picked at centre-half forward but is expected to inter-change between the 45 and full-forward line.
Mayo; David Clarke; Ger Cafferkey, Donal Vaughan, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Tom Cunniffe, Colm Boyle; Séamus O’Shea, Tom Parsons; Diarmuid O’Connor, Aidan O’Shea, Kevin McLoughlin; Andy Moran, Cillian O’Connor, Jason Doherty.