By Frank Craig in Croke Park
Donegal survived the almightiest of scares in Croke Park on Saturday to secure what will be a fascinating semi-final duel with raging hot championship favourites Dublin.
In that two-horse race, which will take place on Sunday, August 31, the bookies now have Dublin at 1/10 and -7 on the handicap to win through to yet another All-Ireland decider. That obviously steams from the contrasting manners in which both outfits prevailed at Croke Park.
In the end, the weekend's results were the ones that most had forecast. However, that preemptive billing of 'The immovable object meeting the irresistible force' certainly doesn't now have the same impact such was Donegal's difficulty in overcoming a combative and determined Orchard effort.
Donegal registered just one point from play during the first period and - despite being second best in most areas - still exited at the break in front thanks to a superb Odhran MacNiallais goal. The level of Armagh's 'physicality' in that first-half seemed to rattle Donegal and the lack of authority displayed by the match officials meant it was often a lawless battleground.
Three of the opposition attempted to choke out Karl Lacey before Donegal doctor Kevin Moran's efforts to attend to the player resulted in the disgraceful incident where Aaron Findon hurled the medic to the ground. Along the sideline Paul Grimley was also getting physical with Eamonn McGee.
It was unsavoury to say to least but what was very obvious at that nine-minute juncture was that Armagh had come to battle and to win, with total disregard to cost or manner. 0-2 to 0-1 in front and well ahead in the physical stakes, strikes from Tony and Aaron Kernan (free) cancelled out Michael Murphy's opening free. Some wasteful shooting at both ends from Colm McFdden and Stephen Harold was then split either side of a timely Karl Lacey hand in on Jamie Clarke as he looked to cut in on goal.
An Aidan Forker score on 20 minutes stretched the gap to two as Donegal remained disjointed and off colour. With McGuinness deciding to push Murphy into full forward to give the side a focal point, things began to finally open up and runners were now becoming available off the ball.
Two of those willing to come off the shoulder were Ryan McHugh and MacNiallais. They both combined excellently inside the '21 before the Gaoth Dobhair man clipped in a real beauty of a goal to drag Donegal out of their slumber and into the lead.
Armagh's initial response was impressive as Campbell and Andy Mallon equalised and kicked their side back in front on a score of 1-1 to 0-5, 11 minutes from the break. Donegal produced their best form of the half between then and the midpoint as they pinged over four points to Armagh's one.
Converted frees from Murphy, McFadden and a typical burst and over from defence by Neil McGee, had their side two up before Kyle Carragher reduced the margin back to one up the other end. However, the final say of an incident-packed first-half went to McFadden from the placed ball as Donegal exited with a slender two-point advantage on a difference of 1-5 to 0-6.
Half-time: Donegal 1-5:0-6 Armagh.
Forker and McFadden swapped efforts at the beginning of the second-half while Murphy was also unlucky to see an effort from distance into the area come back off the crossbar. A slick Tony Kernan point was then matched an bettered as McBrearty and McFadden put three between the sides.
At this stage, it looked like Donegal had finally got to grips with Armagh as Neil Gallagher and substitute Rory Kavanagh began to win that vital middle sector battle. A neat inside step and slice over from Aaron Kernan was struck out by another huge Murphy free as Paul Grimley's men remained at a three-point arm's length.
You got the feeling heading into the final 10 minutes that if Donegal could manage to gain a cushion of four, that they'd finally dampen all Orchard spirits. They didn't and inside an explosive two minute spell, Donegal would find themselves behind and staring down the barrel of a result that would have raised a considerable amount of eyebrows at HQ.
Brian Mallon burned a trail down the right before his square to Stefan Campbell was slammed against the base of the post and the rebound cruelly went back in off the foot of a hapless Paul Durcan. That goal came after yet another Tony Kernan over and catapulted Armagh into the lead.
This was now a test of character as well as desire. And while Jim McGuinness will have plenty of questions for his players this week regarding Saturday's performance, he surely can have no complaints on how Donegal responded in the final moments in Croker.
Michael Murphy was immense and it was he, along with MacNiallais and finally McBrearty, that eventually helped Donegal over the line by the slenderest of margins. There were some hairy moments at the death but a massive pluck from the air inside his own area by Neil Gallagher thankfully, from a green and gold perspective at least, coincided with the final whistle.
Donegal: P Durcan; E McGee, N McGee (0-1), F McGlynn; A Thompson, K Lacey, P McGrath; N Gallagher, O Mac Niallais (1-1); C Toye, L McLoone, R McHugh; P McBrearty (0-2), M Murphy (0-5, four frees) (capt), C McFadden (0-3, one free). Subs: R Kavanagh for Toye (43 mins), M McElhinney for McLoone (55 mins), D O’Connor for McFadden (58 mins), M O’Reilly for McBrearty (70 mins)
Armagh: P McEvoy; F Moriarty, C Vernon, A Mallon (0-1); M Shields, B Donaghy, A Kernan (0-2, one free); S Harold, A Findon; A Forker (0-1), K Dyas, T Kernan (0-4, one free); K Carragher (0-1), S Campbell (1-1), J Clarke. Subs: B Mallon for Carragher (41 mins), E Rafferty for Findon (45 mins), R Grugan for Dyas (55 mins), M Murray (0-1) for Forker (58 mins), K Toner for Harold (65 mins)
Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan)
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