Getting the match-ups right has gone a long way for Kerry and Mayo in recent years. We think of Aidan O’Mahony on Michael Murphy in the 2014 final, Lee Keegan on Enda Smith in the 2017 All-Ireland quarter-final replay and just last weekend Patrick Durcan tagging Ryan McHugh.
Dublin and Tyrone too have shown their own versatility to nullify threats — Eoin Murchan twice on Niall Sludden last year and Pádraig Hampsey on Conor McManus in that season’s semi-final.
The potential duels for this weekend’s All-Ireland semi-finals are salivating. Here we do the nigh impossible nd try and second guess Jim Gavin, James Horan, Mickey Harte, and Peter Keane:
In their three Championship meetings between 2016 and ’17, Jim Gavin started a different marker on O’Connor each time — Davy Byrne (’16 final draw), Michael Fitzsimons (’16 replay) and Philly McMahon in the ’17 final. One of them will again trace him here and our sense is McMahon is the likeliest given that he is in much better form than last season and O’Connor has been sharp since returning from injury.
We should preface this by pointing out James Horan could easily start Darren Coen, although Moran knows already this summer that being whisked off in the first half doesn’t bode well for the next game.
Cooper and Moran have had ding-dong battles in the past and Moran is au fait with the dark arts as Cooper is in handling and sometimes matching them. Cooper would revel in being asked to snuff out the Mayo figurehead.
Usually so incisive, McLoughlin has been out of sorts this season but scored a fine point when coming on for Jason Doherty against Donegal.
But for Doherty’s injury in that game, he mightn’t start here and yet the sight of Dublin has regularly brought out the best in him. Small’s discipline has been questionable in these matches and McLoughlin is no innocent either. Expect fireworks if this clash comes to pass.
Lee Keegan could easily be given this duty and Durcan the responsibility of the other Raheny man Brian Howard but it’s Durcan who is hunting the true galvanisers — Shane Walsh and Ryan McHugh the perfect examples. Fenton stands not only as Dublin’s most important outfield player but as an undefeated Championship footballer in his fifth All-Ireland campaign. Put simply, he is the beacon Mayo will have to dim.
Marked Ciarán Kilkenny out of the All-Ireland final two years ago but Kilkenny alternates between the inside and half-forward line a lot more now and those days of Keegan being chained to the full-back line are gone so he could be a job for Keith Higgins or Colm Boyle. No, if Keegan is to show he is a Croke Park man yet again it will have to be from close to centre and Howard is so good now he deserves such a detail.
Con O’Callaghan could be a consideration for Barrett given he has the frame to deal with his power. However, we are predicting Brendan Harrison will be tasked with following him. It might be up Barrett’s street to take on a left-footed footballer for the second time in seven days and Barrett, while 33, is still able to motor.
Paul Murphy could be just as suitable to this role given he has shown he can toggle between the half-back and half-forward lines but Murphy could be sent to the “D” to help mind the house in front of McShane or tag Sludden. White is the type of player that insists on freedom and Harte will allow him some of that but he must track Tyrone’s playmaker.
Tom O’Sullivan’s shutdown of Donegal’s Jamie Brennan was his biggest scalp to date but whoever shadows McShane — and Tadhg Morley is the likeliest candidate — must appreciate he won’t have everything go his way. McShane has been extraordinary since he made the move closer to the opposition’s goal, his strength perfectly complementing his finishing attributes.
Regarded by Peter Keane for his qualities a little further out the field, Enright started the games against Mayo and Donegal. Should Donnelly move inside, the Tarbert man won’t flinch either. Donnelly has a habit of coming in and out of games and Enright seems the best candidate to try and subdue him for long periods.
If Cathal McShane is Tyrone’s stand-out All-Star nomination at the moment, McNamee isn’t too far behind him. He completed considerable jobs on Conor Cox and Michael Hurley last month but keep Clifford to three points here, do enough on his own to ensure Clifford doesn’t create enough to bring in his team-mates and he can be putting in his tuxedo order.
The presence of Colm Cavanagh behind him offers McGeary some security at centre-back but he is a fine defender in his own right - combative with a streak of class. From the Sigerson Cup final earlier this year through to the League through to now, many have tried to put manners on O’Shea but he routinely rises above it. Mickey Harte’s biggest match-up decision.
McKernan picked up a knock when coming on for Tyrone against Dublin on Saturday but managed to shake it off to finish out the game and if anyone has the gumption to silence in-form O’Brien it’s him. McKernan also has the speed to keep up with O’Brien but will require help as the Kenmare man is all about going for the jugular now.