The weekend which every team sets out to be part of has arrived. While the different provincial finals offer a certain tradition to the football season, the All-Ireland Quarter-Finals offer us a first glimpse of knockout championship football for the year. Expect things to go up a notch this weekend as there are no second chances from here on in. Heaven’s door is only two games away for all the teams involved but for some the hype will stop here while for others it is only starting. What is key from here on in with regard betting is very simple: don’t believe the hype.
Mayo vs Down
It has always been said of Down teams that they are a different animal when they get to Croke Park. It is a belief that this is where they belong and on many occasions they have been more than happy to showcase their talents here. They provided the shock of the 2010 Championship when they dumped out Kerry in the All-Ireland Quarter-Finals but since then they have been very hit and miss. Last weekend they became the first team to come past the six-day turnaround and like all Down teams they will have a spring in their step having reached this far. The one huge negative is that they are very suspect at the back. They are excellent at moving the ball forward, creating chances, and taking them but if you were to be backing them then you would want to be confident that the other team would not be able to run up a big score.
Mayo continue to trick us all. Last year it was they who provided the shock of the 2011 Championship season when they ended Cork’s reign as All-Ireland Champions. They put it up to Kerry for long spells in the Semi-Final without ever looking like they had enough to beat them. This year they beat Kerry in Croke Park in the League Semi-Finals before Cork extracted a measure of revenge by hammering them in the League Final. The problem I have with Mayo is that I’m never far away from the feeling that old failings will come back to haunt them. They passed up plenty of goal chances in the Connacht Final and there seems to be a feeling within the management structure that they need to score more goals to progress as a team. Indeed this may be true but for me they were trying to fashion goals out of chances where they would have been far better taking their points. Almost trying too hard if that’s possible. They’re solid at the back, will have their share in midfield but would I back a Mayo team in Croke Park at 4/7? Not a chance. I don’t think that Mayo have the forwards that will run up a huge score and if Down smell blood early on then a minor upset could be on the cards. Not a game I would be getting involved in from a betting angle as there are too many variables on each side. Mayo should prove to be too strong at the finish but don’t be surprised to see Mark Poland supply the bullets for Benny Coulter and Conor Laverty to shoot the lights out on Mayo’s All-Ireland dream for another year.
Dublin vs Laois
Let’s be honest, this is the draw that most in Dublin would have been hoping for last Saturday evening. They have drawn the surprise team of the Qualifiers while they will play the winners of Mayo/Down should they get over Laois. Me? I’m starting to have my doubts. Sure they will win tomorrow night and they will more than likely have too much for Down or Mayo in the Semi-Final but I think this Dublin team are a far better side when they are playing a team like Cork or Kerry. My fear for them is that there are problems in their team and by the time they get to an All-Ireland Final they may not have been addressed. If I was a Cork/Kerry/Donegal supporter I would be happy enough to be on the other side of the draw. At least then if you were good enough to get to the Final you would have two games of real substance under your belt against two real contenders and everybody would know where they stood on All-Ireland Final Sunday. The route that Dublin have been dealt so far is of no huge benefit to them as a team. We already knew that they were better than Louth, Wexford and Meath. This weekend they will more than likely add Laois to that list of names but going forward it’s not a huge benefit to them. The big guns are all on the other side of the draw and for me that was the place Dublin wanted to be. Their titanic battle against Donegal in the Semi-Final last year helped to cement the spirit within them which was so evident against Kerry in the last ten minutes of the All-Ireland. This year they may have no such battle to help them prepare.
This is the bonus round for Laois. Wrote off during the course of the Championship by many, myself included, the Qualifiers have offered the first real glimpse that Laois are starting to buy into Justin McNulty and his methods. Wins over Carlow, Monaghan, Leitrim and Meath have seen them this far but the run is likely to come to an end tomorrow evening. Like many teams that have come through the system before them they have almost stumbled across their best team. Brendan Quigley and Colm Begley offer a formidable midfield partnership and will hope to provide the base they need to be competitive against Dublin tomorrow evening. Truth be told they are more than likely two forwards short to come close to providing the upset everyone would love to see. They should hold their own for periods of the game but they won’t overpower Dublin like they did with Meath as Dublin are as good physically as anyone. However, despite their lack of quality forwards once they show up and play with the same effort as has been witnessed in their previous games they won’t be hammered. The handicap is no bigger than seven with any firm and while it is a big lead it could go either way in the last ten minutes. If Dublin open up they would cover it but they have not been doing so in any games to date and seeing as they did not do it to Meath the last day I’d have my doubts that they would be any hurry to do it.
Cork vs Kildare
For me this will prove where this Kildare team stand. I don’t think I have ever seen as much hype attached to a team who have won not one thing of note in the heat of summer battle. Not even one Leinster have they managed but yet they were likened in some quarters to the All Blacks. People talked of them as All-Ireland contenders despite the fact that when the really big questions were asked they never had the answers. Sure, decisions have gone against them but that happens to all teams at some stage. These decisions have become excuses for this Kildare team and that is never a good omen. It becomes an even worse omen when you have to go and face a team with real aspirations of winning the All-Ireland, which is exactly what they face this weekend. In reality Kildare should not even be here because if Limerick had killed the game at certain stages in the last play of the game Kildare would have run out of time. While their dedication is admirable they do not have the players to progress. The long ball to Thomas O’Connor has become more central to their game this year but it does not present a danger which will have Cork fearful of what may happen should it work on Sunday. After all Kildare will be faced with a set of backs who deal with much better forwards in training and in Munster Championship games against Kerry than what they will be faced with on Sunday.
At the other end, if Kildare were given so much trouble by Joe Sheridan, Brian Farrell, Graham Reilly and Ian Ryan then how will they deal with Ciaran Sheehan, Colm O’Neill, Paul Kerrigan, Fintan Goold and Donnacha O’Connor? That goes without even mentioning Paddy Kelly who has been named on the bench. Meath wiped out Kildare around the middle section of the field and Cork are a huge step up in this area. For me this game also provides the bet of the weekend. The handicap seems way too short in my mind. Everywhere except Boylesports (they go 3) have it set at two and in my mind Cork are more than a goal better than this Kildare side. It might take them a little while to warm up due to their lack of games but once they get going Cork will cover the handicap.
Kerry vs Donegal
For me this is the game of the weekend because it will tell us two things. Firstly it will tell us if this Donegal team are for real. Are they a side that when the big day and the big names are put in front of them will deliver their game plan with the same level of execution which has seen them deliver back-to-back Ulster Championships? It will also offer us an idea of whether the Kerry revival is fact of fiction. They will have to play at their maximum to beat Donegal and that’s why it will prove enthralling viewing, as no team betters Kerry when they are playing at their maximum level. Whether it is still in the legs of this team remains to be seen but what they do provide is the talent to take out any team at any stage. They offer a real goal threat and can kick scores from out the field. Shooting from afar is like second nature to Kerry players. This is something which may prove decisive come the crucial parts of Sunday’s showdown.
The area which is providing most concern for Kerry is at the back. If Donegal can manage to close down Kerry like they have done with almost every other team in football, Dublin included, then they have a real chance. This year they have been running up big scores but will they be able to match Kerry in the scoring stakes? This is the game of the weekend but it is one to watch and debate on rather than bet on. If I was pushed I would say that Donegal will have too much in their half-forward line for Kerry to deal with. They will win enough balls around the middle of the field to get the scores while the stats suggest that they may be able to stop Kerry getting in for the goals they may need. Expect fireworks as the wit of Kerry forwards enters into battle against the tiger-like defence of the men from the hills. It will make for fascinating viewing.
Cork -2 (10/11 with Stan James)
Lay Kildare (3.45 with Betfair)