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Gallagher fired up for Dubs challenge at Croke Park

By John Campbell

Facing Dublin at Croke Park is never easy for any team.

When Donegal do so tomorrow in the semi-final of the Allianz Football League, they will face what is their most formidable challenge of the year to date against the backdrop of their leanest spell since 2003.

Rory Gallagher's side have lost their last four matches yet a benevolent if somewhat convoluted score-difference structure paves the way for an unexpected assault on a title which has been held by their opponents for the past four years.

With the Ulster Championship round the corner, the north-west side are seeking a boost as the season's intensity is racked up.

It's not just the games lost that burden the 2012 All-Ireland champions, either. Donegal have shown an alarming capacity to lose their way in the closing stages. In the last 31 minutes of the clash with Kerry, they scored just 1-1 while they failed to score in the last 20 against Monaghan.

And the absence of the emerging Eoin McHugh with a hamstring problem could impact on their attacking flair.

McHugh's brother Ryan, Paddy McGrath and skipper Michael Murphy have been Donegal's more consistent players in a league campaign that to date has provided more questions than answers for manager Gallagher.

Paddy McBrearty has been snapping up scores but has yet to reveal the level of consistency that highlighted his performances when Donegal were kings of the castle four years ago.

Mark Anthony McGinley has stepped into the goalkeeper's role having made his debut in the recent 1-10 to 0-7 loss to Dublin - a result that Gallagher is keen to see overturned.

In that game, Murphy was sent off while Neil Gallagher and Frank McGlynn were unavailable but both are expected to bring experience this time out.

Hugh McFadden has shown signs that he can mature further at this level while Rory Kavanagh is still playing with youthful zest.

Gallagher admitted: "Some of our performances have not been too bad but our recent results have not been good. Dublin in Croke Park are always a tough proposition but we will be up for this one."

His Dublin counterpart Jim Gavin has overseen a league itinerary that has yielded seven straight victories and has afforded hitherto fringe players the opportunity to come of age.

Cormac Costello, Ciaran Kilkenny, Dean Rock and Brian Fenton are among those who have stepped up smartly.

Hence they will be showing a marked desire to further underline their value to a side that is positively groaning under the weight of talent in every sector.

Paul Flynn, Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, James McCarthy, Philly McMahon and Johnny Cooper remain Dublin's marquee players and their ability to influence a game is renowned.

Donegal won just three of their seven games in the league and the manner in which they faded in the last 20 minutes in those games they lost will certainly be uppermost in manager Gallagher's mind.

His team's lack of conviction, inability to make scoring chances count and apprehension will make their mission doubly difficult. Yet if they can manage to rise to the occasion, this could serve to turn their season round.

That's an incentive to which Gallagher hopes they respond.

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