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All you need to know about the Ulster Championship semi-finals as Armagh face Monaghan and Tyrone play Donegal

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Rory Grugan could prove Armagh's key man against Monaghan. Pic: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Rory Grugan could prove Armagh's key man against Monaghan. Pic: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Rory Grugan could prove Armagh's key man against Monaghan. Pic: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

It's semi-final weekend in the Ulster Senior Football Championship as Armagh face Monaghan and Tyrone take on Donegal.

Here’s everything you need to know before the big games:

Armagh v Monaghan: Today – 4pm (TV: Sky Sports Arena)

The Game Changers: Rory Grugan v Conor Boyle

It's not hard to see why Kieran McGeeney made Rory Grugan captain in the past. It is also not hard to see why he no longer has that honour. While he was captain it seemed to weigh heavily on his shoulders and Grugan is one of the most clever footballers going in many ways. In his last outing he bagged a goal, was fouled for several frees and earned the decisive penalty slammed home by Rian O'Neill.

Pushing forward from full-back is not something unknown to full-backs now. A whole new breed of player now plays in the number 3 jersey where their responsibilities are not confined to keeping a tidy square and Monaghan’s Conor Boyle, along with Derry's Brendan Rogers, is excellent at it. It was Boyle's many runs forward from full-back that pulled Fermanagh's defence out of shape in the quarter final and Armagh will need him marked.

Talking tactics

One of the tactical traits of basketball is the ability to create, spot and exploit mis-matches.

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In their last game against Antrim, Armagh had a serious size differential over the Saffron full back line and they piled in Andrew Murnin, Rian O'Neill and Rory Grugan. A goal was scored by Grugan following a long pass from Stefan Campbell and three more attempts at long passes were tried in the next five minutes, but the ball in was pressurised and Antrim managed to clear their lines every time.

The Monaghan defence is not the biggest one on the circuit, so we may see this trick being repeated, if only for certain windows.

Both teams will certainly bring bodies back into defence, but their first thought when the ball is turned over is to win it back, high up the field.

As ever, goalkeeper kickouts will be important and while Armagh's Blaine Hughes keeps improving, Monaghan have the incredible Rory Beggan who can punish any frees within 60 yards distance or clear any attacking press.

At what stage of the game they apply the press on each other's kickouts will be the interesting thing here.

The Verdict: Armagh 1-16 Monaghan 1-18

There are plenty who will tell you that Armagh's time is now, and an ugly statistic is now hanging over them that every other team in Ulster have been to the Ulster final since their last visit in 2008. At the time, you could never have foreseen the famine for Orchard fans that was to come.

However, they have been building towards this day for a long time now. They have an awful lot going in their favour and with the addition of Kieran Donaghy in their set-up, their in-game management has been brushed up on.

But still. It is hard to imagine them winning a game like this, until they do so. Armagh may have won a Round 3 qualifier between the two decisively in 2019, but this is a different feel with no safety net.

Ultimately, Armagh cannot be trusted to do the job, until we see it for ourselves.

The man in the middle: David Coldrick (Meath)

They say the best way to stave off fear from falling from a horse, or a bicycle, is to get straight back into the saddle. I wonder was that on David Coldrick's mind this week as he was offered another Ulster derby after taking charge of Donegal-Derry last weekend. His performance in that game wasn't perfect, with a decent penalty shout denied, but in such tight affairs not every call is going to be perfect. He will need all his match fitness for this fixture.

The last time they met

NFL DIV1 (16/05/21) Brewster Park, Monaghan 1-12 Armagh 1-16

SCORERS, Monaghan: A Mulligan (0-5, 3 frees); S. Jones (1-0); S. O'Hanlon (0-2); C. McManus (0-2, 1 free, 1 mark); M. Bannigan (0-2, 1 free); R. Beggan (0-1, free)

Armagh : R. Grugan (0-7, 3 frees); S. Campbell (1-1, 1-0 pen); R. O'Neill (0-3, 1 '45); A. Forker, C. Turbitt (0-2 each); O. O'Neill (0-1).

Tyrone v Donegal: Tomorrow – 1.45pm (RTE Sport)

The game changers: Darren McCurry v Hugh McFadden

When these two met in 2019, Tyrone’s Darren McCurry was left on the bench until the 43rd minute. He came on and scored three points and when they met last year, he was having an impressive game but again taken off. It wasn't that Mickey Harte didn't use him, it's just that confidence players such as McCurry thrive on being 'the man', such as he was last week against Cavan when landing a 10-point haul.

Here is where it gets complicated for Tyrone. Thinking back to that 2019 game, Cathal McShane had already enjoyed a superb league at full-forward and Tyrone had telegraphed their attacking ploy of long, direct ball into McShane. Donegal reacted by stationing the totemic Hugh McFadden just in front of their full-back line. If he cuts out the supply, then it is hard to see where Tyrone's scores come from, especially with McCurry shackled.

Talking tactics

While Tyrone experimented with a more 'attacking' game early this year, the balance clearly needed work. At the most basic level, it is one thing playing fast ball into the forward line, but the quality of the delivery was frequently sloppy and bouncing over the heads of the intended targets.

Since then, they had to temper their approach when Kerry ran six goals past them in the league. That had nothing to do with an attacking approach, but was pure rank bad defending, every goal an example of players leaving runners to others. An excuse has been fashioned that players had forgotten how to man mark when used to a zonal defensive system, but this is passing the buck.

Donegal will play as they always do, keeping the pitch wide, and their defenders will continue their supporting runs into the Tyrone penalty area to clear out the area around 40m for their point shooters.

How both teams go after each other's kick-outs will be interesting. Shaun Patton practically passed a delivery in last year's Championship that brought a goal when Tyrone were committing bodies forward. Can lightning strike twice?

The verdict: Tyrone 1-13 Donegal 2-14

Apart from Tyrone's run against Donegal when they beat them in the Ulster final in 2016, the semi-final in 2017 and ended their long-standing unbeaten record in Ballybofey in the Super 8s game in 2018, normal service has very much resumed.

In 2019, Donegal delivered a tactical lesson. Last year they beat them in Ballybofey again in a game that hinged on inches, but don't they all?

The fact remains that Tyrone have come up short in a variety of different ways and that may start to seep into their belief system. They might be encouraged by Michael Murphy's injury struggles, but they also require Conor Meyler to negate Ryan McHugh and find a way to get around Donegal stationing Hugh McFadden as a deep lying sweeper.

Until Tyrone deliver a statement win against credible opposition, judgment is reserved.

The man in the middle: Joe McQuillan (Cavan)

Some great stats unearthed this week. It has been 17 years since Cavan whistler Joe McQuillan first took charge of a Donegal and Tyrone game and in that time he has been in the middle of the fixture 12 times.

That he is repeatedly handling one of the most fractious rivalries in Gaelic Games shows the trust the Referee Appointment Committee have in McQuillan's abilities as a strict disciplinarian who takes no nonsense and is able to stand the heat.

The last time

NFL DIV 1 (15/5/21) Healy Park, Tyrone 0-16 Donegal 0-18

SCORERS, Tyrone: P Donaghy 0-10 (6f, 1 '45) N Morgan (1 '45), M O'Neill, C McKenna, K McGeary, C Meyler, M Bradley 0-1 each.

Donegal: M Murphy 0-6 (3f), P McBrearty 0-4 (2f), J Brennan, C Thompson 0-2 each, M Langan, N O'Donnell, C McGonagle, P Mogan 0-1 each


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