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Peter Canavan: Monaghan need more strength in depth but Armagh are ready to show true grit

Arm’s length: Armagh ace Jamie Clarke
Arm’s length: Armagh ace Jamie Clarke
Monaghan boss Malachy O'Rourke

By Peter Canavan

Tomorrow night, football's pound-for-pound champions go again.

Despite working off one of the smallest playing bases, Monaghan have established themselves as one of the top teams in the game. Residents of the top flight, winners of the most competitive province in recent seasons and All-Ireland semi-finalists last year, Monaghan are respected by everyone.

However, they find themselves in a strange kind of purgatory, seen as a team that can beat anyone on their day yet simultaneously left on the sidelines when it comes to the All-Ireland contenders conversation.

There's no doubting their talent or their ability to pull the maximum from themselves. The question mark over Monaghan surrounds the depth of their squad and whether they could put the three or four big performances together they would need to win an All-Ireland.

They can beat anyone, but have shown too that they can be chinned themselves by less-fancied teams.

Last year, Fermanagh struck late to knock them out of Ulster. The year before that Down made them look ordinary, while they've also lost to Longford in the back door in the past. Monaghan need to be the best version of themselves every time.

Their mood will be tested first this summer by Cavan. Relegated from Division One, they'll give themselves more than a puncher's chance when Monaghan come to town tomorrow night. Monaghan may have won each of the last three Championship meetings between the sides, but they have come down to a single score.

Darren Hughes is a massive loss to them. When people think of Malachy O'Rourke's Monaghan they think first of Conor McManus and then perhaps of Rory Beggan, who has established himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the game.

But Hughes is the beating heart of the team in terms of the amount of ball he handles, carries he makes. There's little between the sides and there's no room for complacency and I think they'll get through. From there, they'll be favourites to reach another Ulster final. No matter how that game goes, they'd be just one match away from the Super8s.

If they get that far, however, they'll need to add some depth to move to the next level. Stephen O'Hanlon showed flashes of his talent in the league. Michael Bannigan looks a good prospect, while an injury-free run should bring Barry McGinn on a great deal. Monaghan will need them pushing hard later in the year.

The other quarter-final in Ulster on that side of the draw sees Armagh take on Down. This time, I reckon Kieran McGeeney will get the win in Ulster he so badly wants.

They have struggled in Ulster and have yet to win in four attempts, but this time he has a much stronger hand at his disposal and a forward line that will contain Jamie Clarke, Stefan Campbell and Rian O'Neill.

They have struggled in the past against teams that play with a blanket defence.

Tyrone did it to them in Croke Park a couple of years ago and they were picked apart. Last year, Fermanagh choked the life out of them in Ulster and I'd expect them to come up against something similar against Down. But O'Neill is a big, physical player who offers something different both in the inside line and around the middle.

With Tyrone, we lost in Ulster four years in a row from 1990-1993. There were actually five games in there as we lost to Armagh after a replay in '93. It does nothing for confidence but everything for desire. It should be the same for Armagh.

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