Bernard Allen, superb for Offaly against Limerick.
IT will be very much squeaky bum time for Offaly when they welcome Tipperary to Tullamore for what could be their most important game of the season next Saturday.
Offaly are currently top of Division 3 South of the National Football League with four points from two games but both promotion and relegation are still very much on the table ahead of this Saturday's final round.
The stakes are absolutely massive and the result of Saturday's big game will define where Offaly head. They will also be keeping a watching brief on Aughrim where Wicklow face Limerick but their entire focus will be on their own performance.
With the top two teams in the division going into the semi-finals and the bottom two going into the relegation play off, Offaly find themselves on a knife edge despite a very solid start. A defeat to Tipperary and Limerick win over Wicklow will see Offaly, Tipp and Limerick on four points and scoring difference deciding which two go into the semi-finals and which one joins Wicklow in the relegation dogfight.
Offaly are top on four points and in the happy position of having their fate in their own hands. Their scoring difference is +6 poitnts. Limerick and Tipperary are on 2 points – Limerick's scoring difference is level points while Tipperary are +1. Limerick, however, are ahead of Tipperary in the table at the moment as they won the head to head between them but if three teams tie, scoring difference will be the sole determinant. Wicklow are bottom with two losses and a -7 scoring difference. They can get through but need to beat Limerick by a few points and for Offaly to beat Tipperary, placing three teams on two points and Offaly out through the gap with their full quota.
It is all very delicately balanced and Offaly will be preparing in the expectation that Limerick will be good enough for Wicklow – that is not guaranteed and Limerick certainly looked mediocre against Offaly but the Munster men are favourites to win.
Offaly's scoring difference is five points better than Tipperary but that is a very tender advantage and a three point win for the Munster side will overturn that.
Offaly's task is simple – beat or draw with Tipperary (or lose by less than three points) and they are home and dry. It is an absolutely massive game for them, their biggest league game in John Maughan's reign and the prize is big. The split league divisions because of Covid-19 has worked in Offaly's favour. Division 3 north has Derry, Fermanagh, Cavan and Longford and it is the stronger group.
With two of last year's Division 4 sides, Limerick and Wicklow, in the south division, it has given Offaly a great window of opportunity. They have taken advantage with wins over Wicklow and Limerick, though they had opportunities to win both by more and take a lot of the pressure out of Saturday's match. They had particularly good chances of beating Limerick by more, though it was a good win as it was the type of game Offaly have lost in the past.
The margins are so tight in this division. Limerick opted to tap over a late free in Saturday's defeat by Offaly rather than attempting to manufacture a goal deep in injury time because of scoring difference while Wicklow got a late penalty goal in their win over Tipperary – and this could well come back to haunt Tipp.
Tipp are slight favourites. While they lost to Limerick in the first round, they are the Munster champions and they beat Offaly with a degree of comfort in last year's league. They have punched at a higher level than Offaly for a few years but John Maughan's charges have improved this year. The wins over Wicklow and Limerick will enhance their confidence and they are working so hard.
Their attack has been going particularly well and three players, Shane Horan, Cian Farrell and Niall McNamee contributed six second half points off the bench last Saturday. All sixteen Offaly points came from play and that is very good scoring.
Offaly's attack and their options on the sideline gives them a chance against most teams at this level but this is a real test for them. A game where they simply have to perform and produce the goods in the white heat of battle and with huge stakes.
Their form so far coupled with Tipperary's somewhat stuttering start suggests that Offaly can progress here. However, the impression remains that Tipperary will improve with a gun at their head and Offaly need a huge performance. Saturday's game will tell a lot about both sides, where they are at the moment and where they are heading. The odds favour Offaly ever so slightly but it is all so delicately poised.
There is also a big dividend for winning here and topping the group. The table toppers will more than likely avoid inform Derry in the semi-final and that will strengthen their chances of winning there and promotion. It is all to play for and Saturday promises to be one very dramatic day.
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