Ahead of the short midseason break in the League of Ireland Premier Division, Cork City have a huge chance to inflict another serious blow to Dundalk’s title defence/challenge.
John Caulfied’s side have been in absolutely rampant form this season, notching up fifteen wins out of sixteen and rarely looking like anything other than a side finally ready to step out of their title rivals’ shadow.
Dundalk, for their part, have looked better in recent games after wobbling in the early part of the season, nonetheless, they will still feel like they need to win to regain the mentality that they are in a title race, rather than simply being in “best of the rest territory.”
On either side of the divide lies an in-form striker, and while it would be hugely simplistic to suggest that it is only about either Sean Maguire or David McMillan, it could come to which of the two has a better game.
First, in the green corner, is Maguire. The 23-year-old has picked up where he left off last season, has scored 13 goals in 16 games and has the all-round ability to terrify defenders even if he is not the one putting the ball in the back of the net.
Case in point of this was last week’s clash with Shamrock Rovers. The visiting defence targeted him for the night and as a result the wide players and, later, Achille Campion were given more space than they should have been.
This leaves the Lilywhites with something of a catch 22. If whichever combination of Paddy Barrett, Sean Hoare, Brian Gartland or Niclas Vemmelund don’t target Maguire, he could punish them just has he has done in two of the last three times these two have met each other, but if they don’t then the likes of Karl Sheppard or Gearoid Morrissey or Stephen Dooley or even defender Ryan Delaney these days, all ready to capitalise.
Likewise, Dundalk have a number of threats outside of McMillan, though the forward’s form automatically makes him their biggest. The 28-year-old missed the beginning of the season but did not take long to get up to speed once he returned, as nine goals in 13 games can attest to. The ex-UCD man showed City exactly what he was capable of in March, coming off the bench to score in the champions’ 2-1 defeat at Turner’s Cross.
Much could also depend on the performance of Michael Duffy. The former Celtic winger has successfully managed to block out the Daryl Horgan comparisons and come into his own as an effective player at Oriel Park this year.
Likewise, Robbie Benson, missed badly when he came off in that aforementioned defeat, will need to be at his best to unlock what has been a strong Cork City defence, while the battle between Patrick McEleney, creator in chief for Dnndalk, and Conor McCormack, the rock at the base of the City midfield could be the most intriguing battle of the whole match.
The champions’ defence, their downfall in the early part of the season as they adapted to the loss of Andy Boyle, seems to have tightened up in recent weeks with four clean sheets in a row, but this will undoubtedly be the greatest test of that.
Realistically, only a win will do for Dundalk on Friday night as they look to inflict the first real damage to high-flying Cork City. Anything less wiuld be a disaster from a psychological point of view.
On this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast, we take a look at a big ten days for Martin O’Neill’s Ireland as well as the usual review of the latest Lesgue of Ireland action.