Ultimate Grand Final Preview: Melbourne vs Western Bulldogs

Never have two preliminary final victories been so convincing.


Melbourne blew Geelong out of the water with a resounding 83-point win. As intimidating a warning shot as any.


Yet the Western Bulldogs responded emphatically, trouncing Port Adelaide by 71 points on their own turf.


The result? A grand final where both teams are at the peak of their powers. Picking a winner’s like weighing up between red and black at the casino.


If there’s one thing we learnt from 2020, it’s that resilience wins premierships, and both teams have it in spades.


Melbourne’s was on display in round 20 when the ever-changing COVID landscape meant they flew from Melbourne to Brisbane, sat on the tarmac for two and a half hours, and then flew back to Melbourne. All to come out and thump Gold Coast by 98 points the next day.


As for the Western Bulldogs, they spent the lead-up to the semi final against Brisbane locked in their hotel rooms, and were denied a captain’s run before their prelim against Port, yet found a way to win both games.


And there’s of course the romance. Two clubs with a proud history that only have one premiership between them since 1964. It’s one for the footy purists.



Last time they met

The ledger is squared at one apiece heading into the grand final, with the Dees trumping the Dogs in round 11, but the Dogs returning the favour in their most recent clash.


In round 19, the Bulldogs outmuscled Melbourne, making the most of their opportunities en route to a 13.7 (85) to 9.11 (65) victory.


The Dogs established a lead from late in the first quarter, and held onto that buffer throughout the encounter despite advances from Melbourne.


The Dees would get within as little as four points, but a Jamarra Ugle-Hagan goal sealed the result.


One of the Norm Smith Medal favourites, Marcus Bontempelli, was at his captivating best with 10 clearances, two goals and 31 disposals. Jack Macrae (38 disposals) and Caleb Daniel (34 disposals) also starred.


The usual culprits were dominant for Melbourne, with Jake Lever (15 intercept possessions) intercepting like a man possessed, as well as Clayton Oliver (38 dispoals) and Christian Petracca (31 dispsoals, one goal) who were in the thick of the action.




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Team news

Melbourne have named an unchanged side from the preliminary final, with James Jordon lining up as the Medical Sub.


For the Bulldogs, two red, white and blue hearts have been shattered, with Ryan Gardner and Laitham Vandermeer omitted. On the flip side, Alex Keath and Cody Weightman received the news they’ve anxiously anticipated all week, and return. Laitham Vandermeer will feature as the Medical Sub.



Why Melbourne can win

Could the AFL’s longest active premiership drought come to an end on Saturday?


The Dees faithful have been reluctant to dream, but with one game standing between them and euphoria, it’s impossible not to.


A selfless team buy-in, 22-man defensive unit, strong intercepting pillars, hunger for contested ball, superstars, flair, depth, and drive. Melbourne has all the ingredients for a premiership.


They may have come up short against the Bulldogs in round 19, but there were plenty of learnings to take away from that encounter. One being to put a leash on Tom Liberatore. The Dees did so effectively in their round 11 triumph, but let him get away the second time around, and it was at their peril. If they can stop ‘Libba’, it’ll go a long way to winning the game.


Another small edge the Demons have is the fact they played their preliminary finally in Perth, and therefore finished their quarantine a week earlier. It’s only the slightest advantage, but when two teams are so evenly matched, every 1% counts.


And if you believe in omens, there’s plenty pointing to the Demons. The last time they won a flag was 1964, and the 1964 Olympics were held in Tokyo. Melbourne also won their first nine games this season, and the last five times they did that resulted in a premiership.


If there are footy gods, you’d imagine this is the year they relent on long-suffering Demons fans.



Why Bulldogs can win

Melbourne have been the best team this season. There’s no disputing that.


But you don’t win premierships by being the best team all season. You win premierships by being the best team on grand final day.


This is anyone’s game.


That being said, the form of both teams is strong. But the anomaly that is the pre-grand final bye has handed the Western Bulldogs a significant advantage. It means Melbourne are underdone, having played one game in the best part of a month, while the Dogs are battle hardened and riding the wave of momentum that’s come from two monumental victories.


And while they’ve experienced a fairly significant player turnover since 2016, that fairytale flag will be fresh in the mind of Luke Beveridge and the playing group.


Round 19 seems a distant memory following the disaster that was the Bulldogs last three rounds of the season. But it wasn’t long ago. If the Dogs could beat Melbourne then, they can do it come Saturday.


When you consider the motivational expertise of Beveridge, the high the Dogs are riding after a nail-biting win over Brisbane and thumping of Port Adelaide, and the fact they won it from outside the top-four just five years ago; there’s no reason this team can’t win the flag.



Players to watch

There are season-defining matchups and scenarios to play out all over the ground.


Marcus Bontempelli and Clayton Oliver narrowly missed out on the Brownlow Medal last Sunday – finishing second and third respectively – but come Saturday night and one of them will have a premiership medal slung around their neck, and maybe even a Norm Smith.


Throw in Jack Macrae and Tom Liberatore for the Bulldogs, and Christian Petracca and Jack Viney for the Demons, and the two best on-ball brigades will be going head-to-head. Not much more needs to be said.


As has been touched on, one name from that illustrious list has influence that needs to be curbed, and it’s not who you might think. Tom Liberatore is a clearance machine, and if the Dees were unsure about tagging him, they got their answer in the preliminary final, with Port tagger Willem Drew looking on from the bench as Liberatore broke the game open with two penetrating and decisive clearances in the first minutes. Expect James Harmes to get the job on him, and it’ll be a crucial one at that.


The game could be won and lost on the wing, and the decisive contest will be between Ed Langdon and Bailey Smith. Smith’s showcased his offensive prowess in the last two weeks, so much so that he’s in Norm Smith Medal conversations, but Langdon’s one of the best two way runners in the competition, and if he holds Smith accountable defensively it’ll be harder for him to damage the scoreboard in attack.


Then there’s Max Gawn. A true match-winner. Lachie Hunter already let slip that the Dogs won’t let him roam freely, and they’d be damned if they did. You’d suspect it’ll be a team effort, checking his runs, and hindering him at every chance, led by Stef Martin. But how Gawn will react is the real question. Can he overcome the attention?


Onto the topic of defence. Throughout the year the Dogs have shown they’re susceptible to bags from small forwards, which could open the door for Kysaiah Pickett, or even a Charlie Spargo or Alex Neal-Bullen, to have a field day. Expect former premiership Hawk Taylor Duryea to make Pickett work for his chances however.


At the other end, curbing Aaron Naughton’s influence will be firmly fixed in the minds of the Dees, but who will be tasked with doing so? Steven May’s the obvious choice, but Naughton could drag him up the ground, which brings Harrison Petty into the equation. Will be a match-up to watch.


And having taken Aliir Aliir out of the game last week, Luke Beveridge will be dreaming of a repeat performance from Josh Schache, this time on Jake Lever. If Lever’s nullified, we won’t see the sturdy Melbourne defence we’ve come to know.


Of course, there’s a couple of cult heroes to keep your eyes on in Bailey Smith and Cody Weightman. Will be sure to excite.



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Prediction

The hype surrounding Melbourne is justified, and hard to ignore.


But it plays right into the hands of Luke Beveridge and his Bulldogs. They don’t enjoy the underdog tag, they thrive off it.


This is a team that knows how to win a premiership from outside the top four, and the preliminary final trouncing showed they won’t run out of steam.


The pre-grand final has given them a golden chance to recuperate following a long stint on the road, and it means they’re more match fit and battle hardened than Melbourne.


Not to mention the Bulldogs beat the Demons in round 19.


As painful as it is to say, the heartache’s not over for the Melbourne faithful.


The Western Bulldogs are about to experience a once-in-a-lifetime fairytale for the second time in six seasons.

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