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Ulster setting hottest pace in race for promotion

By Declan Bogue

While Derry and Tyrone head into a fortnight that they hope to emerge from still clinging to a top-four place, therefore securing their passage to the league semi-finals, Division Two has no such pretensions towards democracy.

Only two sides will go into a league final, and while it's nice for the team that wins the decider, the main prize of promotion to the top flight is already guaranteed.

At the summit sit four Ulster teams – Donegal, Monaghan, Down and Armagh. The first three are locked on seven points, with identical records of three wins, a draw and a loss.

Armagh have five points, leaving them outsiders for promotion and with Donegal to come as their final game, it would seem unlikely.

Of the top three, Down have the weakest scoring difference. They also have the toughest run-in with two away games against the unpredictable yet improving Meath and relegation-threatened Laois.

According to defender Peter Turley, they are concentrating on the process of the concluding two games rather than the possible outcome.

"We expect Monaghan and Donegal to win their two games and for us to do the same," the Downpatrick clubman reveals.

"They have better scoring difference than us as well so for us to turn that around and get into the play-offs ... we can't count on that, and we have to just take it one game at a time, see what happens.

"If we get to the play-offs then well and good, but we are just concentrating on beating Meath to start with before we even think about Laois."

Looking ahead to the preliminary round of the Ulster Championship, an extra game in Croke Park would be hugely beneficial to Down, especially when you consider that their Ulster opponents Tyrone are more than hopeful of squeezing into the Division One semi-finals.

"It would be nice to get more games and every game helps in terms of preparation and stuff. But we are focused on Meath at the minute, we know we are outsiders," Turley acknowledges.

"There's no point in pinning our hopes in getting there and being disappointed if we didn't, so we are just taking Meath now, a massive game, and trying to get over them."

The team who are perhaps best placed to make the final are Monaghan. In their two home games this season they put 12 points on Meath and eight points on Louth. Their concluding fixtures are both at home, against Laois and Galway.

Veteran midfielder Dick Clerkin says their league form was something they targeted at the outset of the season.

"We simply targeted a minimum of winning our home games. Because we have such a good home record – one of the best in the country now at this stage – it was a minimal target," says Clerkin.

"We have achieved 50 per cent of that, and want to back it up in the last two games."

Last summer they shocked all by beating Donegal in the Ulster final, and there was a whiff of score settling about their league encounter in Ballybofey at the start of the month when the 2012 All-Ireland winners atoned with a seven-point victory.

Yet, they are not the type of side that shirk many challenges and another meeting with Donegal is something they would relish, the Currin man says.

"It's a huge carrot to get Donegal in Croke Park. We were there last year playing Meath (in the Division Three final) and that final definitely would have stood to us. You are getting into Championship conditions as well, hard ground and that.

"Once you get to the final stages of the league, the general population's attitude to the league changes. But for us, it was be a massive draw to get there," he says.

"If we can play to our own potential we would like to think we will be there."

Given how poor Louth have performed at this level, a Donegal win on Sunday seems an inevitability. Manager Jim McGuinness has so far started only 16 different players throughout the league and there is a sense of one last big push with the side.

What may worry them greatly has been the progress of Karl Lacey. Recovering from surgery on his hip has been a long process and it seems increasingly unlikely he can reprise the kind of dynamic play at centre-back that brought him the 2012 Player of the Year accolade.

However, even without Lacey stationed in the pivotal number six jersey, it seems inevitable Donegal will steady a wobble that has brought a draw at home to Meath and defeat to Down to sew up a league final spot.

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