'Wounded Derry face Armagh in round two headliner'

Mickey Harte and Kieran McGeeney
[Getty Images]

The rising sense of jeopardy in this year's All-Ireland series will come under sharp focus at Celtic Park on Sunday as a wounded Derry attempt to steer their season away from another road bump against Armagh.

In the 12 months since they met in last year's Ulster final, the narrative has been as much about what hasn't happened for these counties as opposed to what has.

For despite their best efforts, Derry were unable to land the All-Ireland title last year while Armagh's long quest for silverware rumbles on after a couple of defeats by Donegal - in the Division Two final and, more painfully, in last month's Ulster final.

But while Armagh at least partially extinguished the hurt of their latest penalty shootout heartache in last week's All-Ireland Group 1 opener against Westmeath, Derry find themselves under increasing pressure following their Ulster exit with defeat by Galway in Salthill.

For Derry, part of the equation is simple. Losing to Armagh would eliminate the possibility of topping the group.

A third successive championship loss for Mickey Harte's Oak Leafers would leave them needing to beat Westmeath in their final group game - at a neutral venue - to progress to the preliminary quarter-finals.

And while Derry would be favourites over Westmeath in such a scenario, there is no escaping the notion that we've reached the most significant juncture of Harte's nascent reign.

Driving one of the most shocking and controversial GAA managerial appointments in recent memory was Harte's belief that there is an All-Ireland title in this Derry side.

While Harte was in a way removed from the Ulster football cauldron while in charge of Louth, his punditry stint in the BBC studios afforded him a front row seat to Derry's rise to the provincial summit.

It was enough to convince him that taking the job was worth the hassle, and with a Division One title tucked away at the first time of asking, the first stage of the Harte project only emboldened the belief that Derry were building something truly significant.

Doherty and McEvoy return for Derry

Enter Jim McGuinness, who returned to the Ulster Championship with Donegal in time to toss a spanner into his old rival's plan.

Derry's early exit from Ulster was far from catastrophic in the grander scheme. Instead, some felt that the extended training bloc would harden them for a serious tilt at Sam, but the loss to Galway certainly wasn't in the script.

Going down in Salthill deepened doubts around Derry's credentials, and already without the injured Eoin McEvoy, Conor Doherty and Padraig McGrogan, Gareth McKinless' red card added to Harte's selection headaches.

Thankfully for Harte, McEvoy and Doherty have regained their fitness in time to face Armagh, but even with their half-back line considerably strengthened, the scrutiny on this Derry team remains intense as they enter another crucial test.

Again, defeat on Sunday would not sound the death knell on Derry's season, but it would require a run of five straight wins to deliver Sam. Harte, more than most, will appreciate the difficulty of such a task.

Last year, none of the preliminary quarter-final winners reached the last four. If top spot is still a possibility, Derry must pour everything they have into grabbing it.

Sean Cavanagh and Darren McCurry celebrate Tyrone's win in 2017
Harte's Tyrone hammered McGeeney's Armagh by 18 points in the 2017 All-Ireland qualifiers, but Sunday's game will surely be a much tighter affair [Getty Images]

Even though a five-point win over Westmeath helped draw a line under their latest Ulster final defeat, this could be a significant weekend for Armagh too.

Victory for the Orchard will move them on to four points and strengthen their bid to finish top. If they win and Galway beat Westmeath on Sunday, Armagh will face Galway in a shootout for top spot in the final round of fixtures.

But beating Derry will have a deeper significance for Kieran McGeeney's side, who have absorbed much criticism for repeatedly losing tight games against rivals.

A win on Sunday would certainly silence some critics and give McGeeney's side a major psychological boost ahead of facing Galway, who they edged by a point in Carrick-on-Shannon to book a quarter-final spot 12 months ago.

Like Harte, McGeeney welcomes back key personnel with Rian O'Neill reinstated to the starting line-up after missing the Westmeath game.

McGeeney has endured much pain thanks to Harte. He was Armagh captain in the 2003 All-Ireland final when Harte's Tyrone lifted the Sam Maguire for the first time while their last championship encounter as managers - an All-Ireland qualifier in 2017 - produced a whopping 18-point win for the Red Hands.

Such a one-sided scoreline is difficult to envisage this weekend. It will likely be closer to the memorable Armagh-Derry tussles at the turn of the millennium when Armagh prevailed by a point in the 1999 Ulster semi-final and 2000 final.

But whoever wins will gain a huge shot in the arm as the race for Sam heats up.