FOR years now, Dublin have been the masters at retaining possession, especially in how they want to take the sting out of a game, and particularly in how they probe until the right scoring opportunity opens up.
Dublin will regularly hold on to the ball for two or three minutes, necklacing phases of play together as the opposition desperately try and get the ball back off them.
Unless they’re trying to kill a game, holding possession for three minutes is a stretch for Dublin, because they’ll usually have got off a shot well within that time span.
Yet Clare took ball retention to a whole new level against Kildare last Sunday; just before half-time, Clare held on to the ball for four minutes and five seconds before manufacturing a scoring chance.
Kildare did concede one free during that elongated sequence of play, but Clare took the free immediately as they continued to tease and probe. They went over and back across the Kildare 45 metre line on five occasions, necklacing an astonishing 66 passes together before Keelan Sexton finally released Cian O’Dea into the red zone, whose shot was blocked for a ’45.
The patience Clare showed during that sequence was a neat metaphor for their performance; after only having 0-4 scored by the 41st minute, with just a 31% conversion rate up until that point, Clare went on to nail 10 of their next 12 shots.
At one stage, they converted nine shots in a row.
Clare’s goal may have had an element of luck about it in that Cathal O’Connor’s shot dropped short into the arms of Joe McGann, who blasted to the net, but Sexton had another glorious goal chance just after half-time.
After scoring two goals against Cork, and almost having at least one more, Kildare never looked like scoring a goal against Clare.
Kildare’s dominance on kick-outs was central to their win against Cork but Clare won that battle 22-17 last Sunday. That was all the more impressive again considering that 16 of those 22 kick-outs secured were long kick-outs, including six of Kildare goalkeeper Mark Donnellan’s restarts.
Clare continually trusted their big men around the middle to secure possession.
Even when Kildare shaved the margin down to two points deep in injury-time, and retaining possession was never more critical, Clare goalkeeper Stephen Ryan trusted the players outside him and boomed his kick-out down the field.
It was another landmark win for Clare, their first victory in Newbridge.
Then again, Clare have been getting used to statement victories under Colm Collins, especially against Cork; their win in 2017 was Clare’s first time beating Cork in the league since 1994; their 2018 victory in Páirc Uí Rinn was Clare’s first on Cork soil in 24 years; when the sides last met in the league in 2019, Clare won nine points.
All of those were important matches but Sunday’s game in Ennis is huge for a variety of reasons, particularly in the context of promotion-relegation. Clare sit at the top of Division 2 South with four points but a defeat against Cork and a Kildare win against Laois could see them miss out on scoring difference.
Clare are buzzing with confidence going into this game, but they’ll be all the more positive again because of the mental edge they now feel they have on Cork. During that glorious period against Cork in the league between 2017-2019, Clare also felt aggrieved at how much of the commentary still focused on Cork’s demise rather than Clare’s consistent dominance over their opponents.
Tipperary may be Munster champions but, for years, Clare were deservedly the second-best team in Munster, especially going on their league form.
They may not have made a mark in the championship but that was more down to being consistently drawn against Kerry.
Cork turned a huge corner last year when beating Kerry in the championship, but Sunday’s game will be an ideal barometer of how far Cork have travelled since the Munster final defeat to Tipperary, especially now when facing a team they have struggled against.
The test will be all the greater again for Cork in an away fixture against a team flying high on confidence, and with so much at stake.
Clare are already secure of a semi-final spot but the prize for winning on Sunday is still obvious considering that topping the group would more than likely mean a clash with Mayo as opposed to Meath, particularly when Mayo play Meath in MacHale Park on Sunday to decide top of Division 2 North.
Meath would also be a huge challenge but Mayo’s greater experience would present a greater test.
Neither team can look that far ahead yet but Cork’s win against Laois last Saturday was a positive starting point after stuttering against Kildare. Cork were more direct while also more productive on the counter-attack.
On the otherhand, Cork still coughed up 26 shots. Laois only scored 10 points from that return whereas Clare also got off 26 shots but mined 14 scores against Kildare, who are in far better form than Laois.
The return of Luke Connolly and Ciaran Sheehan up front definitely gave Cork that more threatening edge, which they lacked against Kildare. Sheehan was excellent while Connolly gave the killer pass for Sean White’s goal, but most of Cork’s big players stepped up in a must-win game, especially Ian Maguire and Ruari Deane.
Yet they will all need to step up again now on Sunday against a Clare team that have certainly had Cork’s number.
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