Sunday, June 26, 2016

Battle Ends Level, War Resumes Next Week

Honours even then in Cavan but the performances of both teams were closer to a pass level. Neither team played to their potential, though in a contest between two bitter rivals perhaps that was to be expected. There was never going to be free flowing football on show and tactics would always dominate the narrative but even accounting for all that, both teams will know they can deliver much more.

Donegal probably produced their best display against Monaghan since the Ulster Final of 2014 and seemed to have a much better handle on how to hurt their opponents offensively than in previous games. The fact that the game was played on the wider expanses of Breffni Park rather than St Tiernach's in Clones is certainly to Donegal’s benefit in this regard.

On a number of occasions in the first half, they were close to breaking through the Farney defensive shield and looked to be in on goal but sloppy final passes or inopportune slips proved detrimental.

Overall Donegal’s finishing was very poor throughout and will be a source of huge frustration for the lads; management of course have to look at the positives and as such will be pleased that so many opportunities were created – making them count is objective number one next weekend.

Defensively, Donegal were content to setup extremely narrowly, giving Monaghan free rein on the flanks. This worked well in the first half but it did allow Monaghan’s players ample space to run into when collecting Rory Beggan’s kickouts and meant the full court press employed by Donegal became somewhat redundant.

At the other end, the vast majority of Mark Anthony McGinley’s restarts went long and while his team-mates got their hands to a lot of these, for long stretches it was Monaghan players picking up the breaks from any knock downs. McGinley performed well and commanded his own box whenever danger threatened; his play-acting antics towards the end of the game though we can do without.

Just before that incident, confusion reigned as Christy Toye supposedly entered the fray for the excellent Rory Kavanagh. Kavanagh was on his goal line defending a free kick at the time and remained on the pitch along with Toye so Donegal were briefly restored to their full complement of fifteen for one passage of play, following Martin McElhinney’s earlier dismissal.

Regardless of what game plan is employed, it is clear that Monaghan are a nuisance for these Donegal players. They don’t like playing against these fellas. From early on, the players were in the ears of the umpires, linesmen and referee Joe McQuillan himself about what they were being subjected to off the ball but their claims fell on deaf ears. It is no more than every team puts up with but their grate at Monaghan having an edge over them is clear. There is one way to fix that of course – win the replay.

Michael Murphy is the prime example of this; no matter what he tries against those blue and white jerseys, nothing seems to go right for him. The harder he tries the unluckier he gets.

He is usually bottled up in Ulster matches and tends to spend his time roaming in the middle third but in a clever move by Rory Gallagher, he was stationed on the edge of the square for long periods and did plenty of damage from open play.

At one stage in the first half, the captain did brilliantly to control and collect a long ball one-handed; he followed it up with a fabulous dummy to create space for a shot but his footing gave way at the vital second and the chance was gone. Typical.

Surprisingly it was with his dead ball striking that Michael did struggle but that can happen to even very the best and is one of those things. If the team has an important, pressure free, he’s still the man you’d want standing over it.

One man who didn’t have a problem with his free taking was Conor McManus. The ace finisher was lethal from frees, racking up seven over the course of the match along with one trademark effort from play. Seven scoreable frees, plus another couple that he missed, is far too many to be giving away and the defensive discipline must improve.

What makes his points haul even more infuriating is that he was otherwise having a relatively quiet game. Paddy McGrath didn’t let him out of his sight for the entire match.

McGrath was certainly one of Rory's better match-ups but he has to yet to find a solution in stopping Karl O'Connell. The wing-back turned midfielder was immense again yesterday, as he was in last year's provincial decider.

McManus’ kicks kept his team ticking over on the scoreboard and in a matter of second half minutes the game went from a tight, inseparable battle to Monaghan suddenly opening up a three point lead.

McElhinney’s expulsion made matters even worse for Donegal and a result almost looked beyond the team at that stage. They persevered though and huge credit has to go to the players for getting back into the game and it was the goal machine himself, Odhran MacNiallais, who got the pivotal score to haul his side back into the mix.

In a frantic finish, both teams might have thought that the game was both won and lost at different times but in the end ice-cool McManus ensured the shares were spoiled.

The Ulster Championship is a tough slog at the best of times. Replays will now take place next weekend on both sides of the draw and the eventual winners will certainly have earned the title the hard way. For the three other teams, it means a futile battle fought in trying to claim the Anglo Celt and will make it very difficult for them to make a serious impression on the All-Ireland series. That is looking fairly far ahead though, for now there’s no need to look past the weekend, when both teams will once again go to war.

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