When teams in sport go on long unbeaten runs, everyone has them in the crosshairs, writes Tomás Quinn.
The target on Dublin’s back is getting bigger with each passing victory, the incentive for their would-be conquerors greater by the game.
On Saturday night, Croke Park sensed that this Round 4 Allianz League tie was a potential statement game for Mayo.
The recent history between the counties has elevated it into arguably the best rivalry game in football at the moment, yet Mayo is still to beat a Jim Gavin-managed Dublin team.
Here was an opportunity to right that wrong and while it would not consign to bed any demons from last year’s All-Ireland finals it would be a welcome psychological boost for a management and squad of players that knows they will be judged on what transpires over the championship months.
Yet watching the early exchanges, it was Dublin who looked the team with something to prove. Stephen Rochford accepted afterwards the difficulty of beating this Dublin side on even terms much less giving them a 1-2 start in the first few minutes. The three scores were end products, but the foundations for the Dublin performance that followed were being laid all over the pitch.
Defensively Michael Fitzsimons picked up where he left off in last year’s All- Ireland replay with another commanding display against Andy Moran. There was a sequence of play after just seven minutes that saw three Mayo forwards blocked down in quick succession by Dublin defenders. Fitzsimons, Darren Daly and David Byrne set the tone with a trend that saw Dublin record at least a further five blocks over the course of the 70-odd minutes.
As dominant as Dublin were defensively, what Mayo offered up from an attacking perspective was unacceptable. Not one Mayo forward, either a starter or sub introduced, scored from play. They were devoid of any real forward structure or creativity and most worrying for Stephen Rochford would be the fact that no player on the pitch really looked to be driving to change what was happening. It appeared that too many Mayo players were waiting for someone else to try wrestle the game back from Dublin with none willing to be the first to put their hand up.
In last year’s championship, we saw Lee Keegan detailed to mark the opposition teams’ best player, a job he did very well against the likes of Sean Cavanagh, Michael Quinlivan and Diarmuid Connolly. It was interesting he was detailed to mark Eoghan O’Gara at full-back on Saturday. Keegan matches up physically with the Dublin forward but a question must be asked is that where Keegan is best served. In a display that saw them struggling to make any attacking inroads, the Westport man surely would have offered more further out the pitch, looking to drive at the Dublin defence.
Another area of early focus for Dublin was David Clarke’s kick out. From the minute the ball went dead all Dublin players looked to press up on their direct opponents.
The Dublin forwards were also very active with their hand movement and body language, hoping to create as much doubt and confusion for Clarke when trying to decide his best option. This tactic yielded early success when Niall Scully anticipated a kick out to find himself driving straight back at Clarke. After some quick exchanges, Conor McHugh palmed to an empty net as Mayo faced into another set of goalkeeping- related questions.
To his credit, Clarke stuck to the game plan and tried to make the best of his restarts and also made some excellent saves later in the game but there is no doubt Dublin believe they can target the Mayo kick-out and turn it into another attacking platform.
While Dublin scores slowed for a period after the early 1-2, they were relentless all over the pitch. Eric Lowndes, Brian Fenton and Michael Darragh Macauley combined work rate with energy levels that allowed Dublin to dominate the middle third.
Dublin now take their unbeaten record target down to Tralee in two weeks’ time, knowing Kerry will also be looking at this as a statement game for them. They are another side who feel they need a victory over this Dublin group and while, in the long run, it might be no harm for Dublin to have the streak broken before the championship, if their attitude is anything like it was on Saturday night, Kerry will need to be ready from the start.
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