Champions Galway can make necessary improvement
Clare to fall short of final berth despite lively attack
Galway v Clare
Croke Park, 5pm Saturday
Galway know they will have to improve again as their All-Ireland title defence continues against neighbours Clare in the first of this year’s hurling semi-finals on Saturday evening.
Galway are the team to beat this year and are odds-on to win back-to-back titles but they have shown glimpses of weaknesses during the championship and will be wary of the threat Clare pose.
Galway strolled their way through the early stages in Leinster and looked unstoppable until Kilkenny rattled their cage at Croke Park and in Thurles.
They looked lacklustre in the drawn game and, although they were always in command in the replay, they struggled at times to withstand the Kilkenny fightback and perhaps should have had the game closed out before that.
Kilkenny managed to reel in a nine-point deficit to leave just one point between the sides after 54 minutes but Galway got going again and closed out the game well.
Although it was a comprehensive victory in the end, allowing Kilkenny back into the game raised slight doubts about their mental strength as they also failed to put Dublin to the sword earlier this year.
The spine of this Galway team, defensively in particular, has been their real strength in 2018 and no player has exemplified this more than Daithi Burke. Burke has been incredibly solid at full-back but he faces his biggest test yet in Clare’s John Conlon.
Conlon has been one of Clare’s star men this year, hitting 1-22 in their six outings, and he provides the focal point for their attack.
Clare will have been satisfied with their Munster Championship round-robin campaign, landing wins over Waterford, Tipperary and Limerick, but they had a real chance in the Munster final and will have been kicking themselves over that defeat. They led Cork by eight points after 34 minutes in Semple Stadium but struggled hugely after that.
They let Cork cut the gap to four at half-time and from there the Rebels dominated. Clare seemed to abandon their game plan in the second half and the Cork defence outplayed the Clare forwards.
They have clearly learned from this, however, as they played the game on their own terms against Wexford in the quarter-final and it showed on the scoreboard with a comprehensive seven-point win for the Banner. If they are to take on this Galway side, they need to play to their strengths.
Their potential greatest strength is Tony Kelly and the 2013 Hurler of the Year may be getting back near that level. Kelly has hit 11 points in his last three games and, although he scored a solitary point in that Munster final defeat, his direct running in the first half caused havoc, including an assist for a David Reidy goal.
Clare’s brand of hurling revolves around giving quality ball to their runners – Kelly, Reidy, Shane O’Donnell, Colm Galvin – and taking on defences, and this is potentially where they may look to catch Galway. While the Galway defence is extremely solid, they are not the quickest bunch and have yet to be tested by a forward line like this.
Galway,will be content to stick to their guns and play the style that has served them so well. Their combination of skill and physicality is what sets them apart from the chasing bunch and it’s unlikely any team can live with them physically. Micheal Donoghue will be delighted they have had two tough battles with Kilkenny to prepare them for this and his team should be primed for the challenge.
While it is yet to cost them, Galway, like last year, have struggled to score goals in 2018, scoring just three in their last five games, something that hasn’t changed with the introduction of Johnny Glynn. Glynn along with Cathal Mannion were Galway’s main men in the replay against Kilkenny with Mannion’s six points from play proving the difference.
Clare have been making steady progress in 2018 and have improved hugely from their performances over the last few years but this may be a challenge beyond them. They have the ability to cause the Galway defence trouble but it may not be enough to get them over the line.
This Galway team look special and the Clare defence may struggle to live with their height and physicality. David McInerney and Conor Cleary provide a solid spine for Clare but otherwise they could struggle.
Clare should be able to stay in the game for long periods but expect Galway to pull clear by the finish.
2pts Evens BoyleSports, Hills
Over 23.5 Clare points
3pts 11-8 BoyleSports
Reidy to take advantage of space
David Reidy has been a key player for Clare in 2018, carrying his fantastic league form through to the championship and he should outscore Joe Cooney.
Reidy has hit 1-4 in his last two games while Cooney has hit just a point in each of his last two, and Reidy’s speed allows him to get into scoring positions.
He was perfectly positioned to take a pass from Tony Kelly for his goal in the Munster final and he expertly finished it. Reidy has the added advantage of being the back-up free taker for Clare if Duggan steps aside for any reason.
Padraig Mannion has been one of Galway’s top performers this year from half-back and is consistently solid in defence. He has been a little reluctant to go forward at times but his three points against Dublin showed his ability to score from range. If he can get on the ball in space and push into midfield, he should make no mistake.
D Reidy to score more than J Cooney
2pts Evs Paddy Power
Over 0.5 P Mannion points
2pts 11-8 BoyleSports
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