- Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice insists they are ahead of where they were last year despite two successive league defeats
- Oisin McConville and Tommy Carr analyse the weekend's Allianz Football League results
- Martin McHugh previews the weekend's Allianz Football League action
- Dublin boss Jim Gavin gives his thoughts ahead of the clash with Cork
A new month heralds the resumption of the Allianz Football League and after the first two rounds there is much to enthuse about, according to Ciarán Whelan.
That positive assessment from the RTÉ pundit and former Dublin star is testament is to the seriousness by which teams are now taking the league and the all-embracing view that success in spring can lead to an even greater return in the summer.
He explained: "The league has taken on a greater importance in recent times in terms of preparation and the approach from managers.
"It’s ideal for building momentum and it’s not surprising that sides who win their division go on now to have a good Championship.
"So far a lot of quality matches have been played. We’ve had games with lots of scores and a high-tempo.
“There is no doubt that that the introduction of the black card has helped. I know there is still a bit of confusion out there about what exactly constitutes a black card and down the line we’ll probably see situations where teams will try and use the card to get an advantage in the final few minutes or so of games.
“The role of the referee will be crucial. The league is back this weekend and the stakes are getting higher.”
An Ulster battle
As to the upcoming action, Whelan is looking forward to the meeting of Donegal and Monaghan in Division 2.
“In 2011, Donegal won promotion from Division 2, beating Laois in the final. It proved a significant launchpad in their recent success.
“This season they have started really well, with two good away victories. They will probably feel that they owe Monaghan one after last year’s Ulster final, a decider where they were second best for much of a game in which they failed to match the intent of their opponents.
“Monaghan have really prospered under Malachy O’Rourke. Many teams that win a provincial title after a long gap tend to regress.
"All right, they didn’t reach the same heights against Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final, but this year they have laid down an early marker that they are not going to stand still. Their victory over Meath the last day was really impressive.
“The winners on Sunday will probably be nailed on for promotion. However, the losers I think, will also be playing in Division 1 next season.
“Of the other fancied sides, Meath will push hard, but I think they’ll fall short. Galway have been disappointing in the last few years and are not ready for the step-up. Armagh have had their injury problems and lack strength in depth.”
So who will win in Letterkenny on Sunday?
“I think it will be tight and hard-hitting, but the narrow vote goes to Donegal," says Whelan.
Rebels come calling
In Division 1, the Dubs are back in Croke Park, with Brian Cuthbert’s Cork the visitors. Our pundit, like many others, is keen to see how the Rebels prosper under their new management.
“I think it’s fair to say that Cork in the last couple of years had gone a bit flat. A side with a lot of talent that should have been more successful!
“This weekend there is much change, with the likes of Conor Dorman after his Sigerson duties coming back in. Aidan Walsh after two weeks playing with hurlers will start at midfield alongside Fintan Goold. Paul Kerrigan returns to the attack.
“There’s a freshness about Cork and it will be interesting to see whether Brian Cuthbert can realise the potential that he has at his disposal.”
"I’ve seen Dublin in both of their games so far and I can’t say I've been impressed. They certainly haven’t been free-flowing. I know Jim (Gavin) is trying out new players, but I think the break will refocus their minds and being back at Croke Park should help them to get over what will be a stern test on Saturday night."
The fall of the Kingdom?
Kerry travel to Mayo without Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper and Whelan predicts that the rest of this campaign for the Kingdom will be a struggle.
"Kerry are in transition. The return of Johnny Buckley and Kieran O’Leary will help to steady the ship after their club commitments and a few more key players are also due back.
"There is no doubt that they will be formidable down the line, as they proved last year in the All-Ireland semi-final, but I think the next few weeks could be difficult and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are relegated."
Not surprisingly Whelan expects Mayo to open their account on Sunday.
"Mayo will be worried about the concession rate in recent games and two points in Kerry will set them up nicely. They have a nice run of games after that. I expect them to make the semi-finals."
In the other ties in the top flight, Mr Whelan is prepared to sit on the fence with regard to the Newbridge clash of Kildare and Tyrone. He goes for a draw.
A more adamant view surrounds the meeting of Derry and Westmeath in Celtic Park.
“Derry are definitely going places under Brian McIver. Westmeath, you would have to say, have overachieved in reaching Division 1. Derry will prevail.”
According to Whelan, clear patterns are beginning to emerge in Divisions 3 and 4.
"In a similar situation to Monaghan, I expect to Cavan to make even more progress this year. The U-21 success they have had has to count for something.
"This weekend, they are away to Wexford which will be tough. Elsewhere, the other game to watch in Division 3 is the meeting of Roscommon and Limerick. It’s two from those four teams that will eventually get promoted.
"In Division 4, it looks like it will be between Clare, Wicklow, Tipperary and Leitrim for promotion. Clare face Wicklow on Sunday in the standout match and I’m going for a Clare win."
SATURDAY 1 MARCH
Allianz FL Division 1
Dublin v Cork, Croke Park, 7pm
Allianz FL Division 2
Down v Louth, Pairc Esler, 7pm
Laois v Galway, O'Moore Park, 7pm
Meath v Armagh, Pairc Tailteann, 7pm
SUNDAY 2 MARCH
Allianz FL Division 1
Kildare v Tyrone, Newbridge, 2pm
Mayo v Kerry, MacHale Park, 2pm
Derry v Westmeath, Celtic Park, 2.30pm
Allianz FL Division 2
Donegal v Monaghan, Letterkenny, 2pm
Allianz FL Division 3
Longford v Fermanagh, Glennon Brothers Pearse Park, 2pm Roscommon v Limerick, Kiltoom, 2pm
Sligo v Offaly, Markievicz Park, 2pm
Wexford v Cavan, New Ross, 2pm
Allianz FL Division 4
Antrim v Waterford, Creggan, 1pm
Clare v Wicklow, Cusack Park, 2pm
Leitrim v Carlow, Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada, 2pm
London v Tipperary, Ruislip, 2pm
Live radio coverage of the Allianz Football League meetings of Dublin v Cork, Laois v Galway and Meath v Armagh on An tSraith Náisiúnta from 19:00 on Saturday 1 March on RTÉ RnaG and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide). Live coverage and updates of all the day’s action on Sunday Sport from 14:00 on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide). Television highlights on League Sunday from 19:30 on RTÉ Two and RTE.ie (Ireland only).