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Who will win race for semi-finals?

STUDENTS of league results in recent years know that this Sunday’s round of NFL fixtures are highly relevant: Cork, Dublin, Down and Donegal’s great championship campaigns in the past two years had their genesis in the spring. Thus, a fascinating last afternoon of games may have repercussions long after you spot your first fairweather supporter of the season.

CORK v DUBLIN

Dublin have already lost more round-robin NFL matches this year than in the past two seasons combined. More troubling for Pat Gilroy is the nature of the defeats: cleaned out at midfield against Kerry, out-battled in Newry, and annihilated in Castlebar. Injuries to both Brogans haven’t helped, but Dublin’s lazy indiscipline, evidenced by two sending offs at McHale Park, is indicative of a deeper problem. There are still five months for them to rediscover last year’s drive, but this trip to Cork may be their last close match this side of the Leinster final. There are simply not many Dublin players playing with a sense of mission, the way, say, Paul Kerrigan did when introduced in Cork’s own troublesome trip to McHale Park. The difference is that Cork are still grinding out results while playing badly; expect the Dubs to be much improved, but expect the Rebels to take the points. VERDICT: Cork

LAOIS v DOWN

The GAA’s desire to have two more bundles of gate receipts to process leaves us with a slightly ridiculous and slightly exciting prospect of most division one teams retaining chances of being relegated or winning the competition on the last day. Both of these teams would be happy to avoid the former and both swing from form to indifference so regularly as to make a prediction hazardous. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Down will always be porous at the back simply because they don’t have enough quality defenders; Laois, meanwhile, often put 12 men behind the ball and still look like they’ve been caught by a counterattack. Down’s greater ambition might prove decisive. VERDICT: Down

KERRY v MAYO

Those of you who toss and turn wondering whether Mayo are the real deal or not can rest easy: the probable truth is that they are where they have usually been since 1996, which is within the top six, but not within the top two or three.  There is no shame in consistently being one of the better football teams in the country without being the absolute best. They are capable of putting it up to Kerry without reverting to an overly defensive mindset, and much here will hinge on the home side’s attitude to team selection, though the urge to retain an unbeaten record may temper Jack O’Connor’s desire to experiment a little. VERDICT: Kerry

DONEGAL v ARMAGH

Armagh have been competitive enough to offer encouragement but bad enough against, for example, Dublin, to put the brakes on any huge optimism ahead of their humdinger of an Ulster opener against Tyrone. Regardless of what happens this summer, Paddy O’Rourke’s men could really do with top-flight football in the coming years and he is faced with a team selection dilemma: stick with the players who showed spirit to overcome Down, or introduce the newly available Crossmaglen contingent. It would be hard for him to resist putting Aaron Kernan and Jamie Clarke into the starting 15, and the normal concerns about players partying after a club All-Ireland success don’t apply; for example Clarke, by all accounts, doesn’t drink and Kernan is unlikely to have been stumbling around the town all week either. Donegal will summon all their belligerence to attempt to stave off relegation, but without Michael Murphy, they lack punch. VERDICT: Armagh

GALWAY v KILDARE

Kildare could have done with Division One football about two years ago to fortify their know-how for when it comes to trying to beat one of the really big teams in the summer. Still, 3-23 against a Westmeath team that had been improving is not to be dismissed, and most exciting for the Lilies is that James Kavanagh and Alan Smith are hitting form. Galway will have no fear, having not lost to the visitors since 1985, but they are further back in their rebuilding project and unless inclement weather makes this the type of dogfight lottery one often gets at Pearse stadium, they may find that Kildare are moving the ball well enough to break the hoodoo. VERDICT: Kildare

MEATH v LOUTH

Seasons that started so promisingly for both counties are already showing dangerous signs of disintegration. The loser is almost certain to go down, something that would surely spell the end of the affair for Seamus McEneaney unless he produces silverware in the summer. The fact remains, however, that it is difficult to predict that Louth will beat Meath in a big game when that is something we have not witnessed in our lifetime. VERDICT: Meath

TYRONE v MONAGHAN

Even allowing for the neighbourly nature of the conflict and the fact that Monaghan have everything to play for and Tyrone little, it is close to impossible to look beyond the Red Hands. VERDICT: Tyrone

WESTMEATH v DERRY

Too good for Division Three last year, Westmeath must now prove they are good enough for Division Two. They appeared to demonstrate that in, for instance, their win over Galway, but a battering by Kildare in the last round will have knocked confidence even if the potential return of Garrycastle players will be a boost. It would take an unlikely set of results to send Derry down, but perhaps the least unlikely is that they might lose here. It is hard to know if the Oak Leafers are making progress under John Brennan; on the one hand, his honesty is refreshing, but on the other, publicly declaring after a rare win that it came about because the players “listened to us for a change” could be seen as an attempt by him to claim credit for the good days and absolve himself of responsibility for the bad. Either way, him and his side might squeeze through here, but only if they are unified. VERDICT: Derry

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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