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Cork v Kildare: where the All-Ireland quarter-final will be won and lost

Kerry and Donegal may take top billing this weekend but the clash of the Rebels and Lilywhites is just as intriguing. Emmet Ryan breaks it down

Kildare Manager Kieran McGeeney will face his toughest challenge yet.
Kildare Manager Kieran McGeeney will face his toughest challenge yet.
Image: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Reproduced with permission from Action81

Kildare not built to strike early

Cork’s lengthy absence from serious championship play, with only a facile victory over Clare in the eight weeks since beating Kerry, leaves them open to being caught cold at the start.

Kildare are tactically the least suited of all the qualifiers to hurt Cork early in this respect. The Lilywhites strength is at the back, building out from their defensive swarm. If the Rebels are rusty, they will likely struggle to find the posts early but Kildare’s game isn’t suited to breaking up-field and punishing them at the other end. Their finest all-round performance of the season so far, against Tyrone in the Division 2 Final, was one where the attack for patient and ground down Mickey Harte’s charges over the 70 minutes before pulling away late.

That’s not the kind of dynamic forward play designed to exploit defenders who have been away from serious action for nearly two months.

Nor were they built to fade late

That grind it out game however will keep Kildare in the game for the 70 minutes. Against Sligo the Lilywhites’ defence came to play and choked out the Connacht finalists. That’s the kind of performance that can kick start a season after a dismal display in their exit from Leinster. Physically Kildare’s attack won’t wilt either, with Tomás O’Connor an aerial option that can stay relevant late.

Establishing their end-to-end game early and maintaining it throughout will be the key battle for Kildare. The McGeeney era has seen the Lilywhites evolve as a unit. A couple of unsettling performances in the summer have created cause for concern but when they are on Kildare will test anyone. By defending hard early, Kildare should be able to keep in touch on scoreboard. As the game wears on it will come down to their ability to gain a territorial advantage and shift the action more into Cork territory.

Time for Cork to mix it up

Counihan-ball is a well-established and effective tactic for the Rebels. Option 1 is to bombard opponents with high balls, making use of Cork’s immense size inside. If teams over-commit to defending the high ball, option 2 is to run at defenders from deep where once again the Rebels can make use of their physical strength. Cork are bigger and stronger than pretty much any team in the championship and Counihan has built a strategy designed to capitalise on those assets. Cork’s game however relies on defences needing to overload on one aspect of their game, going too deep or pressing too high. The top defences in the country have been able to hang with the Rebels and that gives Kildare cause for hope. Cork’s depth and variety on the bench means they can switch things up as the game goes on but we’ve yet to see the Rebels show a third option going forward. They could win an All-Ireland with just two and we’ll get a better idea if they can from this game.

The verdict

Rust is a massive worry for Cork but that should largely be offset by their bench depth. That should make for a straight-up tactical battle between Kildare’s box-to-box swarm and Cork’s route one attack. It’s a stark clash of styles and one that will take a while to work out on the field.

Kildare’s defence will try to force Cork wide early, taking advantage of their mixed form in distance shooting. The Rebels are hard to keep out of the centre for long and they will eventually find room to pressure the middle. That will place the onus on Kildare’s attack. Cork’s defence has grown over the course of the season and should be able to pressure the Lilywhites wide. O’Connor should make some impact in man-to-man play but his supporting cast won’t enjoy the physical edge they regularly enjoy. That will make it harder for Kildare to win the territorial battle and looks to be the difference in the outcome. In a close game, Cork should do enough to go through.

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Emmet Ryan

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