Peter Canavan column: Monaghan, Armagh, Donegal and Tyrone set sights on Ulster final on huge weekend

As soon as the 2021 Championship draw was made, both Monaghan and Armagh would have immediately felt they have a serious opportunity to reach an Ulster final.

They both passed their first-round tests with flying colours. The semi-final now has the potential to be a cracker on Saturday in Páirc Esler.

Kieran McGeeney’s charges have been making strides in the National League, and looked at home in Division 1 this year. But in order to take the next step in their progression, they need the scalp of a big team in the Ulster Championship.

Monaghan are certainly one of the bigger teams. This would be a massive step forward for this Armagh side, who are still relatively young.

I don’t think they’re going to get a better chance to reach an Ulster final.

The Orchard County surprised Monaghan in the league, so Seamus McEnaney’s charges are well-placed to know what they are up against.

Armagh were pouring out of defence in numbers, and were still very strong towards the end of the game. Up front, they were clinical against Antrim, but know that the Farney County will not present them with the same opportunities as the Saffrons did.

The outcome of this game? A lot depends on the fitness of Conor McManus and Darren Hughes. Will they be able to start and make an impact on the contest?

Hughes has been moving really well this year. Defensively, he has made some significant plays. And he scored a goal against Galway to keep his team in Division 1. So he’s a lynchpin in this Monaghan side, and can play a number of different roles.

McManus adds the class up front. He will take Armagh’s best defender, and maybe another one with that. He creates space for other forwards. But regardless of how well he is marked, he is still capable of kicking outrageous scores.

If those two players are fit, and I expect them to be, I think Monaghan will shade this encounter. But it’s going to be close.

Derry asked questions, and Donegal found the answers

The start to the championship has been marred with one-sided contests, but we got something to be enthused about on Sunday in Ballybofey.

Derry and Donegal really kickstarted our summer.

It was a quality game in many regards. The tactical battle ensued as we expected. There was some great high-catching, there were great points scored from distance, there were controversial decisions, and of course the score of the championship so far to win the game for Donegal.

In close games, the strength of your bench will be the difference between winning and losing. This is something that Dublin have capitalised on over the last six years in tight spots. This time around, Donegal had the stronger bench and hence they won the game.

If you look at the players they brought on, Michael Murphy scored two points. Paul Brennan kicked a point, and Odhrán Mac Niallais won a free that levelled the match.

Rory Gallagher did not have such a luxury. He did not turn to his bench until the 57th minute, when Donegal had already made four substitutions. He was aware he didn’t have the same strength in depth, and that was why they needed to be going into the closing stretch three or four points up.

The Oak-Leaf County will reflect on the goal opportunities they didn’t take, knowing they would have pulled off the upset had they converted one of them. But Derry come out of this game with a lot of kudos. They have proven that they should never have been in Divisions 3 and 4, and they will be targeting promotion back to the top tier next season.

Declan Bonner will be thrilled with his side’s resilience. Twice they trailed by four points, and lesser teams would have waned against that Derry onslaught. But they dug deep, and found a way to win.

That will be a real fillip for Tír Chonaill. They now know they can go to the well in tight games and find what is needed.

Bigger test lies ahead for Tyrone

There was serious pressure on Tyrone coming into Saturday’s game with Cavan. After what happened in Killarney, it was imperative that they got a response from the players and made a statement.

While they never looked like losing the game, they didn’t blow Cavan away.

Tyrone were the fitter and stronger team. Yet they didn’t put them away in a clinical manner.

But there are certainly positives. The performance of Darren McCurry up front and the quality of ball he was getting was pleasing. He was hungry for possession, and was always willing to inflict damage.

It was crucial that Cathal McShane got some game-time, and he looked strong and fit.

Conn Kilpatrick impressed on his championship debut, Brian Kennedy came in and had a strong second half as well.

But in terms of the speed and intensity of the game, it was nothing compared to what they will be faced with on Sunday against Donegal.

That is going to be another serious step up in class.

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