The first week of finals is set to finish with a bang.
Can the Western Bulldogs snap a three-game losing streak when it matters?
Or will Essendon win their first final since 2004?
Last time they met
The Bulldogs and Essendon met just weeks ago in round 21, and the difference between then and now is stark.
Heading into the clash, the Dogs were first on the ladder and zeroing in on a minor premiership, while Essendon were 10th.
Now just three weeks later, Essendon has surged into eighth while the Bulldogs have slid all the way to fifth, having lost their last three.
In round 21, Essendon triumphed by 13 points, and Peter Wright stole the show with a resounding seven-goal performance.
Darcy Parish (30 disposals), Zach Merrett (28 disposals) and Sam Draper were also strong for the Bombers.
MORE AFL: Round 23 Player Rankings
The Bulldogs are unchanged from last week, with Josh Schache the Medical Sub. Luke Beveridge ultimately decided against including sub-100% ruckman Stefan Martin, even though his side’s crying out for him.
Essesndon on the other hand has been forced to do battle without influential half-back Nick Hind, who visited a tier-two COVID-19 exposure site in Victoria and therefore isn’t able to travel two Tasmania. It’s a big blow. Dylan Clarke is the other out, with Jye Caldwell and Martin Gleeson coming in. Nik Cox has been named as the Medical Sub.
Why Bulldogs can win
This team was nestled in the top-two from round four until round 20. Talent doesn’t evaporate overnight.
Yes they’re out of form, having dropped their last three games to Essendon, Hawthorn and Port Adelaide. Culminating in a boilover that saw them expelled from the top-four at the final hour.
But it wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be. Essendon won their final three games, Hawthorn went undefeated through their final four – with another scalp including Brisbane – and Port just booked their tickets to a preliminary final.
Of course they’re games the Dogs should be winning if they want to contend for the premiership, but it’s impossible to be on top of your game for 26 matches.
The rut didn’t come at the best time, but it’s out of the way.
They have the best midfield in the competition, and the best player in the competition in Marcus Bontempelli. You’d be foolish to write the Dogs off.
And Essendon’s loss of Nick Hind will enhance their odds ever so slightly.
Why Essendon can win
If the Bombers were good enough to beat the Bulldogs three weeks ago, they’re good enough to beat them today.
Momentum can be a funny thing, and Essendon have it in abundance while the Dogs are desperately searching for it.
Let’s not forget the Bombers were a rabble last off-season, supposedly plagued by a player exodus. No one had them making the eight this year, and regardless of if they win that elusive final, this season gets a big tick.
Pair that freedom with the desire to end their 17-year streak of no finals wins, and it’s a dangerous combination.
Then there’s the Bulldogs ruck situation. Scott Lycett and Port Adelaide lay the blueprint last week, with Lycett taking direct possession out of the ruck on numerous occasions as Port won the clearance count comfortably. Draper must do the same.
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Players to watch
Jake Stringer’s built in the Dusty-mould and in the purple-patch of his life. If there’s anything the Richmond dynasty taught us, it’s that no one’s more impactful than a centre bounce player who can kick goals.
Then there’s two-metre Peter. Wright kicked seven against the Dogs in round 21, and he’ll enter this game bursting with confidence as he looks to replicate those heroics on the big stage. Could get on the end of a few.
Another Essendon tall that could prove decisive is Sam Draper. The Bulldogs ruck stocks are underperforming and depleted, and having earnt his stripes over the previous two seasons, Draper has a chance to give his potent midfield first use of the footy, which will go a long way to winning the game.
Speaking of the midfield, the battle in the centre that this game presents is truly mouth-watering. At the first bounce, four of the six midfielders jostling in the centre square will be this season’s All Australians, with Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish opposing Jack Macrae and Marcus Bontempelli.
One of the Dogs’ most important players, Tom Liberatore needs to step up if they’re to win this game. The absence of a dominant ruckman means the Dogs will have to work extra hard for their clearances, and Libba’s a clearance machine.
Then there’s Cody Weightman. The kid just has something about him, and you sense he could light it up in his first taste of finals footy.
Stop the count. 6203 days and no more.
Essendon’s painstaking 17-year wait to win a final will come to an end, with the game won in the centre as Sam Draper does a number on Lewis Young, Tim English, and maybe even Marcus Bontempelli.