By James McMahon
And so we reach the penultimate round in this season’s Allianz Football League.
Cavan and Roscommon are the only sides with a 100 per cent record in the competition and have already secured promotion from Division 3.
They will meet on Saturday evening in Kingspan Breffni Park in what will be a dress rehearsal for the divisional decider on 26 April at Croke Park.
What can we expect? Could it be a highly-charged contest where one side will look to lay down a marker ahead of the second instalment? Or will it be one of those ‘polite’ games of football – more like a challenge match? Here’s hoping it’s the former.
Both counties are still very much involved in the Under-21 grade, so players from those squads are not likely to feature at the weekend.
The benefits of putting in place good underage structures are now reaping benefits and it is no surprise that Cavan and Roscommon are well ahead of the chasing pack in the division.
Much focus will be on their upcoming Championship campaigns and if the conveyor belt of talent continues to roll along there is no reason to suggest that they can’t be mixing it with the big boys in the not too distant future.
Offaly close to the trap door
Elsewhere in the third tier, Offaly’s fate could be sealed on Sunday if they fail to take maximum points from their home clash against Limerick. The Faithful County's return so far is played five, lost five.
That said, Limerick are coming off the back of a nine-point defeat to a Fermanagh side who were minus the Quigley brothers. Prior to that the Shannonsiders were somewhat fortunate to edge past Wexford.
You’d expect Offaly to have some kick left in them, and even if they did break their duck a return to Division 4 is a near certainty.
The aforementioned Fermanagh welcome Wexford to Brewster Park. It appears that the Quigley clan – Conor, Sean and Seamus – will not be part of Pete McGrath’s plans going forward, though Barry Owens’ return is some good news.
The Ernesiders will again be looking to Tomas Corrigan to lead the scoring charge against the Yellowbellies, who have failed to win in their three previous away games.
Both Sligo and Longford have also failed to pick up points on their travels and their clash at Markievicz Park is sure to be tight.
The return of Brendan Egan will aid the Yeats County’s cause and they may have enough to squeeze home and so preserve their status in the division.
Familiar foes lock horns again
Dublin and Mayo renew their rivalry in Division 1 . It’s exactly two years ago this weekend since Mayo handed out a 0-20 to 0-08 drubbing to their city rivals in Castlebar. Since then the sides have meet four times – all at Croke Park – with Dublin ahead 3-1 on victories.
Are Mayo good enough to narrow the deficit on Saturday evening? Well, for a start, they have certainly found their form after a tentative start to the campaign.
They hit Cork for four goals the last day in a match where Jason Gibbons was outstanding around the middle and Mickie Sweeney posed a real threat up front, as did the returning Cillian O’Connor.
Manager James Horan hands Tom Cunniffe his first start since last year's All-Ireland final, with the Castlebar Mitchels player picked at corner-back.
Other notable returnees from the Mitchels after their club adventure are Barry Moran and Richie Feeney, but both don't make the XV that will start against the Dubs
Mayo will relish this upcoming test as they bid to continue their surge.
Dublin found Derry too much for them a fortnight ago and will be eyeing a winning response. The likes of Ger Brennan and Diarmuid Connolly are available again after St Vincent's success on Patrick's Day and could feature at some stage.
Jim Gavin also confirmed during the week that Bernard Brogan may also play some part.
Victory for either side on Saturday evening will go a long way to sealing a last-four spot. A slight nod goes in Dublin’s favour, though a Mayo victory would be a further boost to their confidence, while also ending a three-match losing sequence against Gavin’s outfit.
Cork aim to bounce back
Cork lead the way in the top flight and a win over Tyrone would virtually guarantee them a semi-final place. After some eye-catching displays the Rebels were brought back down to earth against Mayo a fortnight ago.
Manager Brian Cuthbert has again opted to shake things up, making eight changes for the visit of the Red Hands to Páirc Uí Rinn.
David Hanrahan, last year's Under-21 goalkeeper, makes his senior debut, while Eoin Cadogan (corner-back) and Aidan Walsh (midfield) return after hurling duty. James Loughrey is also recalled and will line out at number seven.
Fintan Goold partners Walsh in the middle, while John O'Rourke, who scored a vital goal in his substitute appearance against Mayo, replaces Colm O'Driscoll at half-forward.
Tyrone got back on track the last day with a convincing win over Westmeath. That game saw Kyle Coney and Mark Donnelly return to action and both played their part as Mickey Harte's side racked up an impressive 2-23.
The scoreboard operator could very well be busy again on Sunday in a clash where Cork get the vote to bag the points on offer.
Drop beckons for Kildare and Westmeath
Jason Ryan's Kildare have endured a trying League campaign even since their opening-round victory over Mayo. That was a game of real quality and no doubt the Lilywhites would have expected to kick on from that.
However, the nature of their loss to Tyrone in a match where they were clearly the better side must have hurt.
Since then, successive defeats against Dublin and Kerry leave them facing the drop. They'll get nothing handy against Derry in Owenbeg at the weekend.
Brian McIver's side are on an upward trajectory and impressed when seeing off the Dubs at Celtic Park on 16 March.
Before the start of the competition they probably would have settled for survival in the top tier - but now they are well-placed to battle for divisional honours.
They can go a step closer to achieving that against their Leinster opponents. The consequence of that for Kildare would be relegation to Division 2.
Westmeath looks set to join them, with improving Kerry expected to take the points in Mullingar.
The Cusack Park clash could see the return of Kieran Donaghy and Killian Young for the Kingdom.
Intriguing battles in tier two
Division 2 sees a three-way tie at the top with Donegal, Monaghan and Down all on seven points.
Galway and Louth occupy the two bottom places on three and two points respectively. In between lie Armagh, Meath and Laois, who at this stage would probably take survival in the section.
Donegal started the campaign with real intent, but wobbled in their last two matches. They should reassert their superiority with a win over Louth in Ballyshannon.
Monaghan, on the other hand, can take the points on offer against inconsistent Laois in Clones.
Can Down live up to their part of the deal against Meath?
The win over Donegal the last day will have given them great heart. In saying that, the performance was often error-strewn in a game where the Mournemen were that little bit more composed in front of the posts.
Meath showed their battling qualities to get past Laois and will need to dig deep again if they are to prevail in Navan.
Armagh's confidence will have taken a hit after their 10-point loss against Monaghan a fortnight ago.They travel to Tuam on Sunday to take on a Galway side, who haven't exactly shot the lights out this spring.
The point gained against Louth could yet prove to be vital for the westerners. A similar showing that saw them comfortably account for Down could see them take the points here and so leave the Orchard County even more uneasy with Donegal the opposition in their final match.
Leitrim and Tipp set for mighty battle
In Division 4, all the focus will be on Carrick-on-Shannon, where Leitrim host Tipperary. However, Clare can really enhance their promotion prospects with victory over Carlow in Ennis.
They are a warm order to achieve just that and move on to nine points in the table - the same mark as Tipperary
A win for Leitrim, on seven points, is therefore vital in Páiirc Sean Mac Diarmada.
Up until their surprise defeat against Waterford, the Connacht side have shown well this spring and really impressed when accounting for Wicklow in Aughrim.
The Déise also put a spoke in Tipperary's charge when forcing a draw in Thurles. The Premier County know that two points would seal their return to the third tier, but they'll face opposition determined to make amends for their slip-up the last day in front of what will be an enthusiastic home support.
Leitrim to shade it by two.
SATURDAY 29 MARCH
Allianz FL Division 1
Dublin v Mayo, Croke Park, 7pm
Allianz FL Division 2
Meath v Down, Pairc Tailteann, 7pm
Allianz FL Division 3
Cavan v Roscommon, Kingspan Breffni Park, 7pm
SUNDAY 30 MARCH
Allianz FL Division 1
Cork v Tyrone, Páirc Uí Rinn, 2pm
Derry v Kildare, Celtic Park, 3pm
Westmeath v Kerry, Cusack Park, 3pm
Allianz FL Division 2
Donegal v Louth, Ballyshannon, 3pm
Galway v Armagh, Tuam Stadium, 2pm
Monaghan v Laois, Clones, 2pm
Allianz FL Division 3
Fermanagh v Wexford, Brewster Park, 3.30pm
Offaly v Limerick, O'Connor Park, 3pm
Sligo v Longford, Markievicz Park, 3pm
Allianz FL Division 4
Antrim v London, Creggan, 1pm
Clare v Carlow, Cusack Park, 2pm
Leitrim v Tipperary, Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada, 2pm
Wicklow v Waterford, Aughrim, 2pm
Live radio coverage of Saturday’s Allianz League action on An tSraith Náisiúnta from 19:00 on Saturday 29 March on RTÉ RnaG and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide). Live coverage and updates of all Sunday’s action on Sunday Sport from 14:00 on Sunday 30 March on RTÉ Radio 1, RTÉ RnaG and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide). Television highlights on League Sunday from 19:30 on RTÉ Two and RTE.ie (Ireland only).