OPINION

Mouth-watering preliminary finals could go either way

FAVOURITE: The Demons will go into this week's preliminary final against Geelong as favourites. Photo: Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images

FAVOURITE: The Demons will go into this week's preliminary final against Geelong as favourites. Photo: Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images

Back in the days when Melbourne hosted big AFL finals games (and no, it's not really as long ago as it feels to us Victorians at the moment), preliminary final weekend became popularly known as the "people's grand final".

Why? Because it was the last chance when just about all members of the competing clubs could actually get a ticket. Unlike the sea of "corporates" who'd roll up a week later, these were hardcore fans. It meant that the guttural roars of a packed MCG were often louder than for the game which actually decided the premiership.

The other common denominator often seemed to be that one of the two playoffs for a grand final spot would be a nail-biter and the other would result in a comfortable win.

Indeed, over the last decade's worth of 20 preliminary finals, no fewer than seven have been decided by single-figure margins. Conversely, eight have been won by margins of six goals or more.

So, which of the 2021 preliminary finals is going to be the blowout and which will have us on the edge of our seats? Anyone's guess. Friday night's Melbourne-Geelong game and Port Adelaide-Western Bulldogs on Saturday are both genuine 50-50 calls, in my view.

As it probably should be, given these four sides occupied the top spots on the ladder for much of this season. Let's have a look at how these mouth-watering preliminary finals may play out.

MELBOURNE v GEELONG (Optus Stadium, Friday)

The Demons certainly deserve favouritism in this one, given they're 2-0 against the Cats this season. And yet, in that now-famous round 23 comeback win, which gave Melbourne the minor premiership, they were 44 points in arrears entering time-on of the third quarter.

Just as significantly, Geelong rattled on nine unanswered goals in that game, five of them in an amazing eight-minute burst of power-packed football, a potent reminder that while the Cats cop plenty of flak for their slow, methodical possession game, they're still more than capable of putting the foot to the floor when the opportunity arises.

They might need to again, too. Because Melbourne boasts the AFL's No.1 defence (fewest points conceded) and with Ben Brown now a comfortable fit in its forward set-up, Bayley Fritsch on fire and Kysaiah Pickett back in good touch, has posted some of its highest scores of the season over the past five games.

Geelong will try to stretch Melbourne's defence for height and strength, which means Esava Ratugolea structurally has an important role to play in supporting Tom Hawkins and preventing Demon key defenders Steven May and Jake Lever zoning off and intercepting.

But the Cats' biggest challenge might be in midfield, where the Demons have arguably three of the best half-dozen players in the competition in Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and ruckman and skipper Max Gawn.

Geelong had good performances from Sam Menegola, Cam Guthrie and wingman Isaac Smith last week. But the returns were lesser from the biggest pair of names among the midfield group, Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood.

They'll need to be much closer to 100 per cent for the Cats' midfield to at least break even with the Demons. Do so, and Geelong is a serious chance of back-to-back grand final appearances. Without them on board, it's hard to see Melbourne's grand final destiny being thwarted.

Tip: Melbourne by 20 points.

PORT ADELAIDE v WESTERN BULLDOGS (Adelaide Oval, Saturday)

The 2021 scoreline between these two stands at 1-1. Perhaps the Dogs might take a little more reassurance from that, however, given their win came at the same venue this cut-throat clash will be played, and in the second, played at a crowdless Marvel Stadium, they led for all but the final five minutes.

That said, Port is a more dangerous proposition now than it was even three weeks ago, having dealt with the ongoing criticism of its inability to beat quality opponents by besting the Dogs then very efficiently dispatching Geelong in the qualifying final.

The midfield appears to be where this game might be decided, and tantalisingly, either side has a strength with which to exploit the other.

As superb as Port pair Ollie Wines and Travis Boak have been this season, the Power doesn't have the same midfield ground level depth as the Dogs, who boast Marcus Bontempelli (if declared fit), a genuine star in Jack Macrae, Tom Liberatore, Bailey Smith, Josh Dunkley, Adam Treloar and Lachie Hunter.

The Power haven't lost a game all year in which they've won the contested ball count, but the Bulldogs rank higher (third) in that particular category. It's certainly a given Port "stopper" Willem Drew has a big part to play in locking on to one of that group (maybe Macrae this time).

But the Power can also blunt the Dogs before the ball gets to ground level through ruck duo Scott Lycett and Peter Ladhams, who are capable of giving young Bulldog ruck Tim English a torrid time.

Maybe Bulldog coach Luke Beveridge turns to veteran Stefan Martin this week to help give English a chop-out.

The Bulldogs have been higher scorers this season (ranked No.2 as opposed to No.6), but Port's defence has also been better at negating opposition forward entries than have the Doggies.

Like most areas of this match-up, there are compelling arguments for either team. And I suspect this is the game over which we'll be sweating longest.

Tip: Western Bulldogs by 6 points.