Source: James Crombie/INPHO

LAST YEAR’S ALL-Ireland finalists meet tonight for the first time since Dublin’s 1-15 to 1-14 replay win in October, which condemned Mayo to another winter of ifs, buts and maybes.

No county has come closer to ending Dublin’s stranglehold on Sam Maguire, but on paper it’s been a one-sided rivalry following Jim Gavin’s arrival at the helm in 2013.

Mayo haven’t beaten Dublin since their All-Ireland semi-final victory in 2012. In the 10 games since, the Dubs have won seven and drawn three of their contests.

The present squad can call on plenty of veterans from that famous 2012 win – David Clarke, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan, Aidan O’Shea, Kevin McLoughlin, Jason Doherty, Alan Dillon, Cillian O’Connor, Colm Boyle, Jason Gibbons and Seamus O’Shea.

A host of last year’s All-Ireland winning U21 crop (Stephen Coen, Fergal Boland, Conor Loftus, Diarmuid O’Connor and Liam Irwin) were on the victorious side against Dublin in last year’s semi-final.

It’s not all gloom and doom, but Mayo have endured more misery than most at the hands of Gavin’s team.

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

It may be only Round 4 of the league, but there’s a growing sense that it’s extremely important Mayo lay down a marker tonight. Travelling home from Dublin with the two points would be a huge boost to the squad morale.

There’s also the added incentive of ending Dublin’s 32-game unbeaten run. That’s why tonight’s heavyweight clash at HQ should mean more to Stephen Rochford from a mental standpoint.

It may be Mayo’s final chance to garner some type of edge on the champions until they meet in a semi-final or final.

Mayo have come into good form since their opening day defeat to Monaghan, while Dublin were held to draws by Tyrone and Donegal.

Fergal Boland: One of the talented U21s to make the breakthrough

Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

Former Mayo star Billy Joe Padden was highly impressed with the win over Roscommon last Saturday.

“I’m fairly sure that was probably the best football I’ve seen Mayo play in springtime since they hammered Dublin by twelve points in Castlebar five years ago,” he wrote in his Mayo News column this week.

Rochford has made a number of tactical and positional changes in his second year in charge, opting to go without a sweeper for the opening three league games.

It’s probably safe to assume Rochford will continue with that strategy tonight. He’ll be approaching this game with the late-summer on his mind and may feel giving Dublin a spare defender only plays into their hands.

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Mayo’s top scorer Cillian O’Connor

Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

Cillian O’Connor’s re-positioning at 11 makes sense, while Boland has been a welcome addition on the half-forward line. Kevin McLoughlin looks a much better player since his return to the attack too.

Interestingly, Padden believes Mayo’s style is starting to resemble Rochford’s old team – the outstanding Corofin side who swept all before them in 2015.

“I think Stephen Rochford will have been really pleased by the movement of the attack,” he added.

“Watching the game play out, I couldn’t help but think that it was the closest that Mayo have come so far to playing how Corofin did at their peak.

“That free-flowing, fast style with guys moving the ball on quickly with the hand and foot, and other lads coming at different angles. It was a joy to watch.”

Keegan’s unexpected appearance off the bench against Roscommon might suggest how seriously Mayo are treating tonight’s game.

Lee Keegan: Fresh from an All-Ireland win with Westport

Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

Keegan returned to the county side just six days after winning the All-Ireland intermediate club title with Westport.

It’s possible Rochford wants to get one more big performance out of the 27-year-old against Dublin, before giving him some downtime to recharge the batteries after an extended club campaign.

Mayo don’t open their Connacht campaign until 21 May, so the Footballer of the Year would have plenty of time to rebuild his fitness if he does take some time off later in the league.

One thing Mayo will need to improve on if they’re to take home two points tonight is their defence.

Roscommon opened them up for five goal chances a week ago, with David Clarke making a couple of big saves. The backs need to tighten up if they’re to enjoy success against Dublin’s attack without a sweeper.

On the other hand, Mayo didn’t concede any frees within kicking range against the Rossies. A similar number would do nicely with Dean Rock in town. The Ballymun forward has converted 75 percent of his frees to date.

It’s not a game that’s going to define either team’s season, but Mayo certainly need a win more than Dublin.

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The Dubs are still integrating key players into their team with Bernard Brogan, Cian O’Sullivan and Diarmuid Connolly yet to see a minute of action in 2017.

An early-March win for Mayo won’t derail Dublin’s three-in-a-row bid, but it the psychological benefits to the Connacht side would be enormous.

It would be something for Stephen Rochford to build on. A statement of intent and a mental hurdle cleared.

We’ll see tonight.

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