Both Sunday Game analysts Pat Spillane and Joe Brolly have given Mayo the thumbs-up for Saturday’s 5 p.m. throw-in at Croke Park, despite what Spillane described as ‘shortcomings’ that had been exposed in Mayo’s game, while Brolly believes Down’s weakest point is their defence, which is there for Mayo to exploit.
Spillane said Mayo’s defence and midfield are their strongest units, heaping praise on the defence in particular and Barry Moran at midfield, but he did warn that Down tend to play well when they get to headquaterrs and will pose questions for Mayo.
However, both ‘experts’ don’t expect either Mayo or Down to be around when the business end of the championship is sorted in September, but there was a crumb of consolation for the outsiders in the race for Sam with the big guns Kerry and Donegal pitted against each other, which will take one of the favourites for the title out of the equation. Cork, the title favourites, are also destined ot meet either Donegal or Kerry if they get by Kildare.
A win for Mayo, would, of course, put them up against Dublin in the semi-final as the defending champions are hotly fancied to end the great run of Laois, who defeated Meath at the weekend.
James Horan’s men were lying low at the weekend as they took a break away from training at their home base in McHale Park.
However, Horan will be well aware of how Mayo crashed to Meath in the qualifiers three years ago as he plots a path to the semi-final.
The team has no major injury worries but a few changes are expected from the side which defeated Sligo in the Connaught final, with a few positional changes if a not some alterations personnel anticipated when the team is named tomorrow (Wednesday).
Horan believes his team, who beat Cork last year at the same juncture, are in a stronger position now.
“From our point of view we feel that we are in a stronger position than last year. We’ve another very good year of preparation under our belts and we’re just looking forward now to playing to the best of ability in Croker.
He also feels his team will play well in Croke Park.
”The more times you play there the better. You get used to the environment, the set-up, the dressing-rooms, the times, all that kind of stuff.
“Thats all very important, that you get there as often as you can. The more you get familiar with the place the more comfortable it is and the higher the chance that you’ll play like you can,” he said.
While Mayo have not been impressive he points out they had a tough game against Sligo.
“The Connaught final was a tough game, a tough battle and one where we were put to the pin of our collar but we came through with flying colours in the end, and I was delighted with that.
“Of course we’d love to be playing more games - we haven’t played much football this year and we’ve had to watch a lot of teams play. I feel we’ve got a bit of criticism because, according to the papers, we’ve only beaten Leitrim and Sligo but we¹ve no control over who we play and we are just dying to get cracking in Croker,” he said.
The big question is whether Horan will be tempted to start Aiden O’Shea at midfield with Barry Moran but there is a worry that the Breaffy man’s stamina may not last the 70 minutes given his slow return from injury.
Cillian O’Connor is also likely to be playing closer to goals as the Ballintubber ace never really made an impact on the 40 but it will be interesting to see the role given to team captain Andy Moran, who could pose the greatest threat to that Down defence.
It is only two years ago since Down were unlucky to lose to Cork in the All-Ireland final and while they have gone through some rough patches since, they have not lost to Mayo in their two league meetings, drawing once and winning the other.
However, Down have four games under their belt, losing the Ulster final to Donegal but beating Fermanagh, Monaghan and Tipperary, while Mayo go into this game under a cloud of uncertainty having played just two games.
The other notable statistic is that Down have become the first team since Kerry in 2001 to beat the hoodoo of the six-day turnaround by winning their next game dafter losing provincial final.
Mayo’s win over Leitrim was facile while they struggled to put Sligo away in the Connaught final, the Yeats County subsequently hammered by Kildare last weekend in the qualifiers.
But it is Mayo who go into this game at 4/7 favourites in what could be a defining game for James Horan and his team.
Supporters will get good value on Saturday in a triple-header which starts with the Mayo minors against Tipperary in the quarterfinal at 3 p.m. followed by Mayo against Down at 5 p.m. and Dublin and Laois at 7 p.m.