Ulster SFC: Fitter Down might have the edge

Cavan v Down

Sunday, Athletic Grounds, 1.30pm

This weekend’s second Ulster Championship match involves two teams who have recently tasted the bitterness of a provincial final defeat.

In 2017 Down lost to Tyrone and last year Cavan were defeated by Donegal.

Therefore, both teams share the motivation of wanting to get back to a decider to correct their mistakes.

So which team will prevail? Solid arguments can be made for both.

Down were promoted up to division two this year, and had that wrapped up before the final game threw in, owing to a forfeit of points from Leitrim in round six. Down lost their last round game, but that didn’t matter as they got through on head-to-head results with Derry. So they were able to essentially rest players and keep them fresh for their championship clash with Fermanagh.

That performance adds further support to the argument that Down could be heading for another final. The Mourne men controlled the clash against Fermanagh. They played a cautious game in the opening half, and marshalled their defence well. Then they cut loose in the second half and punished Fermanagh’s mistakes during the stage of the game when the Erne men were flagging.

Tomas Corrigan was Fermanagh’s most industrious forward, but Down were able to cut off the supply of ball and he was forced to roam further out the field as the game wore on. Gerard Collins was the man to mark him, but for much of the game Tally’s charges operated a zonal defence to cut down Fermanagh’s attacking options.

In contrast, Down’s transition game was much better than Fermanagh’s, that owes a lot to the pace of Caolan Mooney whose pace and vision could easily cut open the Erne rear guard. Donal O’Hare, Barry O’Hagan and Jerome Johnston were important in scoring terms, but Down also had Mooney on the scoreboard. So they have both inside shooters and distance scorers and that will be an advantage when they set up against Cavan.

The Breffni county’s advantage is momentum. They beat their age-old rivals Monaghan in round one, a scalp that they hold dear. Their next game was against an Antrim team that were unable to get out of division four. So the first half performance will have been of great concern to Cavan fans. They were huddled around their televisions watching the game in a socially distanced manner and unable to voice their anger as Cavan were bottled up by Antrim. The Saffrons targetted Gearoid McKiernan and Killian Clarke for extra special attention, and in doing so blunted the Breffni attack.

Perhaps there is some debate to be had about why Antrim didn’t go on and win. Their shooting perhaps let them down. They had a goal chance saved by Raymond Galligan, who let’s not forget had won the game against Monaghan in the previous round. The Saffrons had plenty of chances to score but missed repeatedly, yet the counter to that is that Cavan’s defending was very good for periods. They marshalled the Antrim forwards with style.

The conclusion to be drawn from Cavan’s two games is that here is a team that will stick to their task and get the job done. They were out of sorts in the earlier stages of the game, but they held their mental strength to win through in the second half.

So how do we call this weekend’s semi-final? Which team prevails?

Cavan haven’t played Down in the Ulster Championship since the 2007 preliminary round when Down won 0-15 to 0-11. However, there’s a more recent meeting which has more bearing on this weekend’s game and that’s the clash in 2018, when Cavan beat Down 1-14 to 0-15 in the qualifiers.

The key to the winner comes down to which team can manage their transition game. Cavan may look to handcuff Caolan Mooney’s running game. Similarly Down might want to limit Gearoid McKiernan’s impact on the match.

Either way, we are looking at a cagey opening half, as both teams will try and wear the other down and turn this into a game of attrition with the fitter team edging it. With that in mind, Down perhaps have an edge as they should be the fresher of the two teams as they’ve not had as many games in the past few weeks as Cavan have had.

That might give the edge but this game will be close and don’t be surprised if we are watching extra time.

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