Posted by Christy O'Connor
Thursday 23 June 2016
From our GAA Experts to football fans all over Ireland, this week's Win, Lose or Draw predictions are starting to take shape.
On a cold, grey day in early April, Monaghan and Donegal met in Castleblayney in the final round of the league. Donegal lit the place up in the first 20 minutes when they led by 1-4 to 0-0. Then Monaghan shook themselves from their torpor and set about trying to stay alive in Division One.
They scored three of the last four points to trail by three at half-time. Monaghan kept their foot pressed to the accelerator throughout the second half but they had to keep going to the final minute to drive themselves over the line. When Colin Walshe nailed the winner with 90 seconds remaining, it was the first time Monaghan had led in the match.
With Cork beaten by Kerry in Tralee, Monaghan’s superior score difference ensured their survival. Their supporters invaded the pitch afterwards like a championship match. Beating Donegal added a sugar lump to the sweetness of the taste.
Donegal still ended up in the league semi-finals. Their position beforehand, and the lack of grave consequences for a defeat, was probably a factor in them only scoring two points in the second half with the breeze. Yet, considering the teams were always set to meet in an Ulster semi-final, it was surprising that Donegal didn’t bury Monaghan when they had a glorious chance to do so.
Monaghan had come into the game on the back of four successive defeats. Relegation would have exacerbated the pain a fifth successive loss would have inflicted. It might have played with Monaghan’s heads heading into the summer. Instead, it was Donegal who ended the league campaign with four successive defeats, which stretched to five a week later when Dublin turned them over.
Donegal have never got worked up over the league. Their absolute focus over the last six years has always been on the championship. With Donegal not playing their first championship match this year until June 12th, they began tapering off their training schedule in March and April before loading heavily in May. That effected results in the latter half of the league but losing to Monaghan prolonged a trend that Donegal are desperate to smash.
In league and championship over the last four seasons, the teams have met on seven occasions, with Monaghan winning five times. Two of those wins were in Ulster finals. There has been nothing between the sides. The average score in those seven games has Monaghan ahead by 1-12 to 1-11 but, as was the case again in April, Monaghan have got into a habit of winning those tight games.
That is the type of resilient side Monaghan are; four of their seven games in the league came down to injury-time. They shaded last year’s Ulster final by one point. Donegal kicked 14 wides that day but there have been times too when Donegal have really struggled to break down Monaghan’s defensive system. In their two meetings last year, Donegal managed tallies of just 1-4 and 0-10.
Donegal opened up this season in blitzkrieg fashion, scoring a combined 6-43 in their opening three league games, an average of 2-14 per game. Two of those three wins though, were against Down and Cork, the teams with the worst defensive record in Division One. Having six points in the bag allowed Donegal to ease off the throttle but their scoring rate plummeted afterwards. Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty did the bulk of the scoring during the spring with a combined 2-67 but increasing their scoring spread is a priority if Donegal are to be serious contenders over the summer.
Hitting 2-12 against a well-drilled Fermanagh defence was a good start. Donegal had eight scorers from play that day. Odhran MacNiallais’ tally of 2-1 made him Donegal’s top scorer from play in the last three seasons, bringing his total to 3-17 in 13 games, one point ahead of McBrearty, who has hit 2-19 from play in the same timespan.
Donegal’s firepower will only take them so far in this championship but will it take them past Monaghan? The machine is still moving forward but not at the same pace. They certainly can’t attack with the same speed as they did at their peak in 2012, and to a lesser degree in 2014. Karl Lacey has been ravaged with injury. Neil Gallagher will struggle to make it back this summer from a back injury. It was noticeable how Murphy wasn’t joining the counter-attacks against Fermanagh but he had rolled his ankle in a club match – an injury which had bothered him before – and may have been sparing himself as much as he could for Monaghan.
After Murphy, Frank McGlynn has become Donegal’s most important player. McGlynn’s driving runs from deep created the opening for their two goals against Fermanagh, giving the last pass, and second-last pass, for both of MacNiallais’ strikes. McGlynn also chipped in with a point.
With Neil McGee now out with suspension, Donegal would ideally prefer McGlynn to police Conor McManus but they need his energy and drive further up the field. That man-marking role on McManus now may pass to Paddy McGrath.
Outside of McManus’ total against Down, nine different players contributed 2-10 from play.
Monaghan’s two best players on the day were Darren Hughes and Kieran Hughes. From 27 plays, Darren won four frees and set up one of the goals. From 13 plays, Kieran scored 1-2 from play and was fouled for a converted free. McManus was subdued in the first half against Down. He didn’t have his first possession until the 17th minute. He only made three plays in the first half but McManus caught fire after the break when scoring two points and setting up Kieran Hughes’ goal. When he lifted his performance, so did Monaghan. McManus remains their tone-setter.
Although Monaghan nailed 0-9 from 14 shots when they were struggling in the first half against Down, they still need to become less reliant on McManus against the top teams if they are to move forward. During the league, he hit close to 50% of their scores.
In last year’s Ulster final, Kieran Hughes dragged Eamonn McGee all over the field, which left his brother Neil more exposed on McManus. Donegal will be even more aware of that tactic now with Neil McGee not around.
Donegal’s discipline also needs to be better with McManus’s accuracy from placed balls. Donegal have lacked the discipline they had under Jim McGuinness. In Donegal’s last three championship games in 2012, they picked up just three yellow cards in three games. This year, Donegal have been picking up too many red cards, never mind yellows.
Monaghan look a good bet to reach a fourth successive Ulster final but it’s also easy to forget that Donegal are trying to become the first side since the great Down team of the 1960s to reach six successive Ulster finals. They know how to get the job done in semi-finals. That edge and know-how, combined with a desperation to slay Monaghan, may just get them over the line here.
There's general agreement on who our GAA experts are predicting will win all this weekends games, apart from Donegal vs Monaghan which is a close call;
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Westmeath to win: 30%
Kildare to win: 65%
Dublin to win: 97%
Meath to win: 2%
Donegal to win: 47%
Monaghan to win: 45%
Wexford to win: 18%
Fermanagh to win: 80%
Down to win: 76%
Longford to win: 21%
Antrim to win: 51%
Limerick to win: 46%
Offaly to win: 90%
London to win: 8%
That's the way the mood is going for this weekend's games - now it's time to make your predictions for the chance to win two All-Ireland Final tickets.
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