Posted by Shane Stapleton

Donegal weren't at their best as the beat Down to reach the Ulster final and, as Dublin showed last year, there may be warning signs when trying to retain Sam

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Let’s be honest, there is a lot of shadow boxing going on in the football championship right now.

And that’s because the best teams know that they don’t need to peak just yet. Donegal beat Down by three points at Breffni Park (as everyone predicted) but few would argue that they are only a goal better than the 2010 All-Ireland finalists. Three seasons ago, the Mourne men beat the Tir Chonaill county in the Ulster quarter-final and then Donegal fell to Armagh by nine points in the first round of the qualifiers. How divergent their paths have been ever since.

There has been incremental improvement since Jim McGuinness took over and it feels as if there will be the same during this term, unless there is a sudden bucking of the trend with the All-Ireland champions who have gone from nothing to everything during this reign.

Where once it was hard to know exactly what their system was, now everyone else is trying to figure out how to match their all-encompassing gameplan.

Manager McGuinness was keen to point out the circumstances of his side’s somewhat underwhelming performance — by their own meteoric standards — against Down. The absences of Karl Lacy and Neil Gallagher being augmented by the losses of Ryan Bradley, who began so well, and Frank McGlynn before the half-time break.

"When you take four or five players out of the team that are normally leaders, and you find a way to win in those circumstances, that is the most pleasing aspect of it," McGuinness explained.

With so much class in an inside forward line of Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and Paddy McBrearty that scored 11 of their 12 points against Down, Donegal can afford to have an off-day and still come through. It may not have been the sharpshooting classic that was the Mourne County’s win over Derry in the quarter-final but there were little glimpses of class now and again to remind people why the Ulster champions are likely about to make it three on the spin.

Few would bet on Monaghan or Cavan springing perhaps the greatest GAA shock of the century on July 21.

It’s worth looking at the counter argument though, because again Donegal were far from brilliant in their second Ulster game, and this on the back of a league relegation. Coming back to retain the Sam Maguire Cup is a feat not often matched by those outside Kerry. Indeed, the last team bar the Kingdom to do so were Cork way back in 1990.

Dublin struggled to get back to the same levels in 2012 after their dramatic title win a year earlier. As one of their players explained to us off the record since then, it’s only once you lose that you realise where you didn’t quite put in that same effort of a year previously.

There were warning signs for Dublin in how they scraped past Wexford and Meath in the Leinster championship, while the All-Ireland quarter-final win over Laois was by a single score. The Dubs still could have beaten Mayo in the semi-final and gone on to retain their title but, when they let the Heather County burst ahead and held on, it wasn’t in retrospect that big of a shock.

That’s what should be concerning fans of Donegal right now. Even in the other code, Tipperary came into the 2011 season as brimming All-Ireland champions, but came up short when it mattered most against Kilkenny in the final. There were signs of weakness in the league, and in wins over Cork, Clare and Dublin but the cracks were papered over by a destruction of a poorly organised Waterford team.

McGuinness is renowned as the thinking man’s manager so no one would put it past him to overcome any psychological barriers.

The Ulster title seems a simple case of showing up and lifting it up now though, because Cavan and Monaghan just don’t have the class or athletic prowess of Donegal. Nor will they be as advanced tactically, or able to foul as cleverly. And that’s what all good teams do: they slow up the opposition.

Ex-Mayo man David Brady fumed on the radio as Donegal continually fouled a Down player, before an assailant came over to make sure the Mourne man was unable to rise up and quickly take the free.

Donegal choked the life out of Down… and the game… and out of everyone in this provincial championship. They have to much for the locals right now. It was a poor game to watch but the All-Ireland champions still seem to be playing within themselves. As Dublin found out last year, it can be hard to pull out you’re A-game on request.

Still the best, but not at their best.

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