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GAA: Inside track on the big game

By John Campbell

Our man John Campbell tackles all the battles in the big Championship game both on and off the field.

Derry v Donegal Ulster SFC Q-final Celtic Park (Sun 2.00pm)

Head to head

Chrissy McCaigue v Michael Murphy

There's more than a hint of the irresistible force meeting the immoveable object in this confrontation. McKaigue has been in superb form at the core of the Derry defence since the start of the year, not only producing top-class displays but providing inspiration for those around him. Known for his fierce commitment and man-marking skills, the Slaughtneil clubman is never slow to build counter-attacks and then drive forward in support of upfield colleagues.

Murphy may have lost a little of the sheen that characterised his immense contribution to Donegal's All-Ireland title triumph in 2012 yet he remains one of the most potent forwards in the game. His ability both to create and to finish chances makes him the ultimate match-winner but he is also adept at fulfilling a deeper role and providing ammunition for Colm McFadden and Patrick McBrearty. Very much a big-game player, he will relish the chance to revel at Celtic Park.

Emmet Bradley v Neil McGee

He has had to exercise patience in his bid to become a first-choice player in the Oak Leaf set-up but O’Donovan Rossa Magherafelt clubman Bradley is certainly now cutting the mustard in the county colours. His strength on the ball, ability to off-load intelligently and ability to grab important scores make him an integral part of Brian McIver’s attack.

McGee is one of the seasoned veterans of a Donegal side that is still striving to rediscover the form that saw All-Ireland honours gained two years ago. Solid and uncompromising, he usually imposes himself physically on his opposite number but is unlikely to enjoy a straightforward day.

Fergal Doherty v M McElhinney

Rory Kavanagh’s suspension and the question mark over Neil Gallagher’s fitness will impose rather more pressure on McElhinney, a player who is still striving to gain household name status. He will bring a frenetic work-rate, his penchant for contesting aerial ball and putting in big tackles in the middle third likely to underscore his team’s strategy. He has not, though, benefitted from a diet of big matches to date although his energy, commitment and abrasive qualities will stand him in good stead.

Doherty enjoyed one of the best games in the Derry jersey when he imposed himself forcibly on proceedings in the recent league final against Dublin. The flame-haired battler did what few players have done — limited the impact of the normally influential Michael Darragh Macauley and despite his venerable years was still going strong at the finish. This will surely have further bolstered his confidence for the Ulster Championship.

Derry tactics

When Derry deployed a route one strategy in the early stages of the league final against Dublin — before the wheels came off the wagon, that is — Cailean O’Boyle had Stephen Cluxton picking the ball out of his net.

Given the height and power in the Oak Leaf inside line, a repeat of this ploy is very much on the cards for tomorrow although Brian McIver’s outfit will not be a one-trick pony.

With skipper Mark Lynch capable of booming over scores from 40 metres, Enda Lynn playing some of the best football of his career and Ciaran McFaul emerging as a forward of real quality, Derry’s capacity to power through the centre and raid down the flanks could be pronounced.

In addition, experienced rearguard operators such as Gerard O’Kane and Chrissy McKaigue have already shown this season that they are intent on proving that defence is the best form of attack and this duo could emerge as central figures tomorrow.

Donegal tactics

The loss of Mark McHugh is undoubtedly a blow to Donegal from a tactical perspective as he has been central to manager Jim McGuinness’s adherence to a safety-first policy that has only been diluted in more recent times.

The 2012 All-Ireland champions will bid to keep the game tight and play with economy and efficiency.

Their hand-passing is not quite so elaborate now nor is their thirst for back-tracking so pronounced.

This being the case, they are more likely to pump high balls into Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden in particular while at the same time hoping that the youthful wiles of Patrick McFadden and Odhran MacNiallais will help to put scores on the board.

Their defence is not as watertight as it has been in the recent past and as a result their counter-attacking finesse, normally exemplified by players like Frank McGlynn, Karl Lacey and Anthony Thompson, may be rather more limited on this occasion.

The game in numbers... 16

While Donegal won Ulster titles in 2011 and 2012 before being denied a hat-trick by Monaghan last year, Derry have to go back 16 years to 1998 for their last provincial crown — a famine that is a source of concern within the county.

The man in the middle

Joe McQuillan (Cavan)

He refereed last year’s All-Ireland final, has taken charge of numerous big games and is known for allowing the play to flow — and for having the occasional brush with controversy.

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