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And then there were 10 up for Sam Maguire

Peter Canavan

Published 29/07/2016

To the four: Galway’s Shane Walsh, Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly, Tyrone’s Tiernan McCann and Kerry’s Peter Crowley are still in the hunt to land the Sam Maguire Cup
To the four: Galway’s Shane Walsh, Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly, Tyrone’s Tiernan McCann and Kerry’s Peter Crowley are still in the hunt to land the Sam Maguire Cup

It's that time of year again when the real business of the All-Ireland championship begins in Croke Park. This year's race for Sam Maguire has been a slow burner, but the provincial final victories of Galway and Tyrone - coupled with last weekend's wins for Munster minnows Clare and Tipperary - have added some spice to the summer menu.

This is how I rate the prospects of the 10 remaining combatants

1. Dublin

Strengths: There's many reasons why they're champions, but it's mainly because they possess the most talented footballers. Their whole set-up is second to none and when it comes to preparation, the management ensure that the players' only concern is beating whoever stands in their way. They have leaders to turn to and Jim Gavin also has the luxury of proven game-changers on the bench.

Weaknesses: They haven't had a serious test since the league final on April 24 against Kerry. As a result, their defensive unit is unproven and in their next game, they're unlikely to have the injured James McCarthy, which is a blow considering they're already without Jack McCaffrey and Rory O'Carroll. Do they have sufficient hunger to retain the title? That will only be answered in the heat of battle.

Summary: They are deserving of their short-priced favourites' tag, but odds-on shots don't always win.

2. Tyrone

Strengths: They weren't No.2 at the start of the summer but they have leapfrogged into this position by virtue of their performances. Their confidence is bubbling after landing the Ulster title and that can only strengthen their belief in the system they are playing. After Gavin, Mickey Harte has the strongest panel at his disposal. He also has a nice blend of youth and experience, with a bonus that a man of Joe McMahon's calibre is coming back into contention and fresh after missing a good chunk through injury.

Weaknesses: Their forward line needs to perform more consistently and as a more cohesive unit. They have been sporadic to date and some of the frontmen can sometimes start playing as individuals. They also need to be more clinical with their goal opportunities, something which cost them dear in last year's All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry.

Summary: Of the so-called big guns, they are the most improved team. If that progress is maintained, they should get to the final.

3. Kerry

Strengths: They know how to win All-Irelands and when pressure comes on in the big games, the likes of Kieran Donaghy, Bryan Sheehan and Donnchadh Walsh will keep calm in the heat of battle. Have an abundance of quality forwards.

Weaknesses: How much have they got in the legs, particularly in the middle third? This is the area in which they struggled in the league final against Dublin. For all their experience, the likes of Donaghy and Sheehan just can't go at full tilt for 70 minutes. Defensively, there are also question marks.

Summary: They will beat Clare on Sunday and then have a crack at the Dubs in the semi-final.

4. Galway

Strengths: Like Tyrone, they have shown sustained improvement this summer. And like Kerry, they don't lack for men who know how to finish - but perhaps the biggest boost has been the performances of goalkeeper Bernard Power and full-back Declan Kyne.

Weaknesses: Their targets for the summer have already been met, so Kevin Walsh will have to convince his players they have more to give. He just doesn't have the options that the other provincial champions do. His players are also short on experience against the big guns.

Summary: They should get the better of Tipperary, but it's hard to see them going any further.

5. Donegal

Strengths: No team has their defensive style honed better than Rory Gallagher's men. Even when things go wrong, they never lose faith in the system. Big-game players like Michael Murphy, Paddy McBrearty and Odhran MacNiallais should be chomping at the bit to play in Croke Park.

Weaknesses: Many of their players have been on the road a long time and that worry became a reality in the Ulster final, when Karl Lacey, Anthony Thompson and Rory Kavanagh struggled with the pace. The latter pair were substituted, while the fact that Thompson was brought back on (for another elder statesman, Christy Toye) underlines a major problem for Gallagher; he doesn't have players he believes in on his bench.

Summary: Will get the better of Cork and give Dublin a run in the quarter - until the petrol runs dry.

6. Mayo

Strengths: These boys should not want for motivation. They got a lot of flak for losing to Galway and it hasn't let up since then, so if they channel this the right way, they should be a much tighter unit. They still have the talent and the athleticism to take on the big guns, while in Diarmuid O'Connor and Colm Boyle they possess two players who lead by example.

Weaknesses: Have lost their mojo. I thought a run in the qualifiers might help them rediscover it, but a lot of their bigger players - like Cillian O'Connor and Donal Vaughan - have looked laboured. The defensive system they have deployed with Kevin McLoughlin operating as a sweeper hasn't worked and it was alarming how their midfield struggled against Kildare.

Summary: They will prove too strong for Westmeath tomorrow and they remain the team with the most potential outside of the top three.

7. Cork

Strengths: In his first season, Peadar Healy is learning more about his players with each game. There appears to be a return to form from some of their seasoned campaigners - Colm O'Neill, Paul Kerrigan and Paddy Kelly - and the addition of promising youngsters Peter Kelleher and Sean Powter has added impetus to the attack.

Weaknesses: Defensively, they don't seem to be learning. They conceded big scores in the league and the concession of 3-15 to Tipp in Munster was proof they haven't shored things up. I'd be worried about what their captain, Kerrigan, said after the last game - that they'd shoved the criticism down their detractors' throats. Really? After beating Limerick and Longford?

Summary: They're capable of throwing down a challenge to Donegal, but not of beating them.

8. Clare

Strengths: The team of the summer in many ways, they have been a breath of fresh air and must be brimming with confidence. In Gary Brennan, they have the midfielder of the championship. He has been outstanding, and the fact that his midfielder partner, Cathal O'Connor, is able to play after having his red card rescinded is a welcome bonus.

Weaknesses: For all their energy and enthusiasm, they lack a cutting edge. They were by far the better team against Roscommon last Saturday, but having wasted a glut of opportunities, they were only three points in front with about 15 minutes to go.

Summary: Still on a learning curve, I can see them ruffling a few Kerry feathers, but a victory is beyond them.

9. Tipperary

Strengths: Tipp have brought a real feelgood factor to this year's championship and after their heroics against Derry, there must have been a great buzz at training this week. What has impressed me most about them is their attitude. At no stage have I heard Liam Kearns or the players moaning about the absence of so many players - they have just gone on with it. This has fostered a never-say-die spirit.

Weaknesses: Their backline is a long way from being the finished article. I'd go as far as to say they are defensively naïve, and will need to develop a more ruthless approach.

Summary: Another battling display looks assured, but Galway are likely to have their measure.

10. Westmeath

Strengths: They'll have no fear of Mayo and the fact that everyone is writing them off is sure to give them plenty of motivation. They'll take heart from their first-half performance against Dublin.

Weaknesses: Their lack of mobility in the middle proved a big handicap in the second-half against Dublin and with their limited pool of resources that is always going to be a problem.

Summary: As they were against Dublin, they'll be competitive early on against Mayo but the difficulty is sustaining their challenge.

Belfast Telegraph

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