If the Demons play as they did against Brisbane Lions for the rest of the year, nobody is stopping Melbourne from clinching back-to-back flags, writes Ronny Lerner.
WITH JUST two months left in the AFL home-and-away season, finals and top-four contenders alike have begun jostling in earnest for coveted positions on the ladder.
But just when it looked like the premiership race had been flung open after reigning champions Melbourne not only lost three games on the trot but endured their fair share of off-field turmoil, Simon Goodwin’s men sent the rest of the competition an ominous reminder last week as to who the kings of the jungle still are.
Heading into what was a top-of-the-table encounter against the Brisbane Lions – and having ceded first spot to Chris Fagan’s team on the back of their three-match skid – Melbourne were looking as vulnerable as they had looked in the past 18 months.
Exacerbating the situation was the fact that the club had to deal with the fallout of a wild night out which led to teammates Steven May and Jake Melksham being involved in an altercation — resulting in May copping a club-imposed one-game suspension and Melksham requiring two bouts of minor surgery on the hand he used to drop May.
And it didn’t end there either, as the Herald Sun continued to publish details of a pre-2021 club crisis relating to Goodwin’s behaviour, with the possibility of him being sacked contemplated.
If that wasn’t enough, the Demons took on the Lions without key duo Max Gawn and Tom McDonald who are both sidelined due to ankle injuries — but they did regain May and what a difference it made.
May stiffened up Melbourne’s shaky defence considerably and played an important role in the Demons producing their best performance of the year as they embarrassed Brisbane by 64 points – Melbourne’s biggest win over the Lions in 24 years.
The result saw the Demons return to familiar territory atop the AFL ladder and dispelled the delusions of supposed rival flag fancies, that they were headed for a downward spiral in the second half of the season.
Make no mistake, if Melbourne plays as they did against Brisbane – with their midfield and backline firing and their forward line finally clicking – for the rest of the year, nobody is stopping them from clinching back-to-back flags for the first time in 62 years.
It’s a sobering reality for the chasing pack, but Geelong, Brisbane, Fremantle, Richmond and Carlton won't be deterred as they strive to upset the apple cart.
And the Demons do have an arduous run home with six of their final eight games against top-eight sides Geelong, Western Bulldogs, Fremantle, Collingwood, Carlton and Brisbane. If they emerge from that minefield as minor premiers, look out.
The Cats’ seeming immortality is something to behold. Their status as a perennial contender for the best part of two decades is astonishing.
Once again, as we head towards the business end of a season, Chris Scott’s men are in the thick of it, in second spot after winning the match of the year so far against the Tigers.
Geelong has an easier remainder of its schedule, with Melbourne, Carlton and Western Bulldogs the only top-eight sides featuring, but will have to take on the Demons and Blues without suspended star backman Tom Stewart. However, Brownlow medallist Patrick Dangerfield is in line to return from a calf injury any week now.
The Lions suffered a humiliating reality check last week as they also suffered their tenth loss in a row at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) against the Demons — a streak that dates all the way back to 2014. If you can’t win at the home of football, it kind of makes it hard to win the flag.
Brisbane will be boosted by the returns of Dayne Zorko (hamstring), Zac Bailey (COVID) and Darcy Gardiner (lungs) in the coming weeks — they’ll need all the reinforcements they can get with matches against the Bulldogs, Richmond, Carlton and Melbourne still to come.
The Dockers’ frailties were laid bare for all to see last week as they got smashed by an injury-ravaged Carlton outfit, in a game they really should’ve won if they viewed themselves as legitimate title contenders.
Like the Lions, Freo will be desperate for a top-two spot to ensure themselves two home finals and they’ll be made to earn that right with Sydney, Richmond, Melbourne and the Bulldogs featuring in their run home.
The Tigers are an interesting case. They currently sit outside the top eight, but they still seem like – if they can get all their ducks in a row in the home stretch – they’re as good a chance as anyone to challenge Melbourne’s claims for consecutive premierships.
Fresh from featuring in the best game of the year to date, they have a really good opportunity to sneak into the top four with Fremantle and Brisbane the only members of the top eight that they have to deal with before September.
Like Fremantle, the Blues have been a huge surprise packet this year, but with such a massive injury list, particularly down back, their midfield is going to have to play perfectly as it did against Freo to protect Carlton's decimated defence and ensure they win more often than not. And with Geelong, Brisbane, Melbourne and Collingwood still to come, they will certainly be made to earn a double chance.
Sydney, Collingwood and the Bulldogs are probably in the next bracket below — teams that look good for finals, but are seemingly just off the pace in terms of premiership calculations for this year.
And then we have Port Adelaide, Gold Coast and St Kilda who are all hanging on grimly but are up against it to finish in the top eight. Another misstep or two for any of those teams and it will probably be lights out from a finals perspective.
So, with 12 teams still vying for top-eight spots with eight rounds to go, this season also looks as though it will go down to the wire.
But while we might get a thrilling finish to the home-and-way season, after seeing what Melbourne did to Brisbane last week, the Demons’ would-be challengers have it all to do if they are to guarantee the finals are just as exciting.
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