Difficult to see Mayo posing any real problems for Cork
THE Cork footballers will be bidding to register their seventh straight win in a major game at Croke Park when they square up to Mayo in next Sunday's All-Ireland quarter-final. And, in the wake of their sparkling display in hammering Down last weekend, they will be going in as overwhelming favourites to extend their winning run at headquarters at the expense of the Connacht champions.
The sequence began in last year's league final when Mayo were in the opposite corner, and the Rebels simply blew them away, running out unflattering victors by 1-17 to 0-12.
To say that the teams moved in starkly contrasting directions after that would be an understatement, and by the end of the 2010 championship they would have been poles apart in the rankings.
After losing by a point to Kerry in a Munster semi-final replay which went to extra-time, Cork negotiated all the obstacles in the qualifiers to return to Croker where they accounted for Roscommon, Dublin and Down in turn to claim the top prize.
Mayo, for their part, fell to Sligo in their opening assignment in Connacht before being dumped out of the All-Ireland race by Longford in the first round of the qualifiers.
Little has happened in the meantime to suggest that an All-Ireland title is a realistic target for Mayo, even if their fortunes have taken a significant turn for the better over the past few months.
They were in danger of being relegated from Division 1 in the league until they fashioned a two-point win over a severely depleted Cork side up in Castlebar in early April. And they almost came a cropper in the first round of the Connacht championship, needing extra-time to see off the challenge from lowly London over in Ruislip.
Since then, they have claimed the scalps of Galway and Roscommon to lift the provincial crown, and, in light of their disastrous campaign last year, it was no mean achievement on the part of new boss James Horan to turn things around so quickly.
They are operating in bonus territory now, but they won't need to be told that they will be taking a big step up in class when they go head-to-head with the All-Ireland champions on Sunday.
With due respect, winning Connacht was never going to be enough to convince the pundits that Mayo have what it takes to make an impact on the national stage.
They had just two points to spare in the final over a Roscommon side that was on the receiving end of a 1-16 to 0-10 thrashing from Cork in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final.
That Mayo will be similarly outgunned by the Rebels is very much on the cards, especially in view of how awesome the defending champions and back-to-back league winners looked when riddling a Down team that came within a point of them last September.
It was a performance of sustained intensity and power, and it firmly dispelled the notion that Cork's narrow loss to Kerry in Killarney had reduced their chances of making a clean sweep of the national titles for the second year in a row.
Admittedly, Down hadn't been going as well as they were prior to last year's showdown with the Rebels, but it's hard to imagine any of the other teams, including Kerry, still in the hunt for Sam savaging them to the extent that Cork did.
Down were simply out of their depth, and their decision to engage in a straight shoot-out with Cork rather than get bodies behind the ball and counter-attack from the back, as they did in last year's All-Ireland final, was always likely to have disastrous consequences.
Possessing a rearguard that seemed only vaguely familiar with the art of defending, Down leaked scores like a sieve, and Cork's final tally could have assumed far greater proportions had they been a little more clinical in the second half when they clocked up eight wides.
It goes without saying there are stiffer tests ahead for Cork, and they won't find other teams as accommodating in terms of affording them the freedom of the park from here on in. But Cork have shown over the past two years that they can cope with demands of a tight game as well, and success in the last three national competitions is ample testimony to their adaptability and consistency.
Mayo can be relied upon to try and close down the space as much as possible on Sunday, but the likelihood is that their efforts will amount to little more than an exercise in damage limitation, and that they will eventually be overwhelmed by Cork's superior balance, ability and power.
Cork's annihilation of Down was dampened by the injury to Daniel Goulding, who is expected to be sidelined for about six weeks.
With Ciaran Sheehan and Colm O'Neill already ruled out for the season, Goulding's misfortune means that the attacking resources available to Conor Counihan are now fairly thin on the ground.
Barry O'Driscoll, who was handed a championship debut after Goulding made his departure last Saturday, lasted just ten minutes before he too sustained an injury that rules him out of the equation for the clash with Mayo.
Fiachra Lynch replaced O'Driscoll, and he would appear to be in pole position to start on Sunday in what is likely to be the only change to the team that shredded Down, with championship rookie Eoin Cotter having done enough to nail down a corner back berth, and Eoin Cadogan's five-star display ensuring that Graham Canty, troubled by a hamstring injury, will again be held in reserve.
The injury to such a quality forward as Goulding is potentially a considerable blow to Cork's All-Ireland aspirations, but his absence should help to focus the minds ahead of the encounter with Mayo, and it will be a surprise if they aren't able to cope with it on Sunday
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