Players celebrate after the first semi final between Melbourne and Carlton at the MCG, September 15, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

FROM just four wins from the first 13 rounds to the final four of 2023. 

Carlton’s have-to-see-it-to-believe-it recovery this season continued in dramatic fashion when it pinched an unforgettable semi-final victory late by two points over Melbourne on Friday night.

DEMONS v BLUES Full match coverage and stats

The Blues will play in their first preliminary final since 2000 after confining the Demons to a dreaded straight-sets exit for the second consecutive year, claiming an 11.7 (73) to 9.17 (71) win in front of 96,412 people at the MCG.

Melbourne looked home into time-on in the fourth quarter before Jesse Motlop kicked a goal to reduce the margin to under a kick. Then, for the second straight week, Blake Acres kicked the winner for Carlton, this time with just 56 seconds left after hauling in a contested mark at the top of the goal square and squeezing it home. 


Carlton’s season was on life support after the loss to Essendon on King’s Birthday Eve left them with a 4-1-8 record after 13 rounds. But after returning to September for the first time in a decade, Michael Voss’ side will now play at least three finals this month after winning 11 of their past 12 games.

While the Blues now head to Brisbane to face the Lions at the Gabba for a spot in the Grand Final, the Demons have an unwanted piece of history, becoming the first side ever to lose both the qualifying final and semi-final in back-to-back seasons. 


It will be a long summer of reflection for Simon Goodwin's side after they looked almost home 10 minutes into the fourth quarter, and it will be a tough off-season for some players that missed chances in the final term. Melbourne's last five scoring shots of the season were behinds, with a 2.6 quarter enough to leave some supporters in tears at the final siren.

A week after a near best-on-ground performance in his first taste of September, Sam Walsh backed it up with an even better showing in his second final. The 2018 No. 1 pick amassed 34 disposals, 11 contested possessions, eight tackles, two goals and 618 metres gained. He looks built for the month that matters most. 

Steven May produced a vintage performance that showed why he was named All-Australian in 2021 and 2022, restricting two-time Coleman Medallist Charlie Curnow to just one goal in a defensive masterclass, while the star defender finished with 22 disposals, 11 intercepts and seven marks.

It ended like it started. Heart in your mouth. Ferocious pressure. Exactly what you hoped for – and much more. 

Eight days after a nightmare finish in the elimination final loss to Collingwood on the same patch of grass, Melbourne made the fast start, acclimatising to the environment quicker than Carlton.  


The Demons kicked the first three goals of the game and looked ominous early. It took a defensive breakdown between Adam Tomlinson and May for Tom De Koning to find some space inside 50 and then convert Carlton’s first goal, just when they needed it.

And then De Koning kicked a second in the space of a minute, stepping up in the absence of Harry McKay in a sign of things to come. 

Tom De Koning celebrates a goal during the first semi final between Melbourne and Carlton at the MCG, September 15, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Walsh put the Blues in front halfway through the second quarter with a deft snap at the Punt Road end of the ground.

Then Curnow finally got some space away from May following a quick entry to kick Carlton’s fifth consecutive goal. It took a response from Smith to settle the nerves of anxious Melbourne supporters. 


The burden of a final afflicted both sides in the third quarter with brutal turnovers costing scoring opportunities. Youth and experience butchered it equally. That's what can happen when the stakes are this high.

Finally, Bayley Fritsch mopped up a messy period of the game with a classy finish to reduce the margin to just a point, before Pickett dribbled a goal to put the Demons back in front.


Marc Pittonet didn't leave Max Gawn's side all quarter but couldn’t stop the skipper taking a contested mark. Gawn missed, Pittonet breathed a sigh of relief. Melbourne led by a goal at the final change, but was far from home.

Walsh levelled the scores 20 seconds into the fourth quarter when the Carlton star nailed a goal on the run, but just when the Blues had the momentum Melbourne’s smaller forward line continued to create trouble. Pickett, Fritsch, Smith and Spargo all caused problems. 

Then the misses happened. The misses that will sting for a long time.

Christian Salem after the first semi final between Melbourne and Carlton at the MCG, September 15, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Just like it resurrected its season in June, Carlton saved its season in September on a night long-suffering Blues supporters will never forget.

Voss will return to Queensland to coach against the side he played three premierships for and coached for five years. His new charges are now just one win away from a Grand Final.

Did Pickett cross the line?
Melbourne livewire forward Kysiah Pickett will scrutiny from Match Review Officer Michael Christian for a bump he made on Patrick Cripps early in the second quarter. The Carlton skipper was collected in the face and left the ground with a bloody nose after being assisted by trainers following the high hit. Cripps wasn’t required to undergo a concussion test and returned to the game a few minutes later. Pickett will also face scrutiny for a jumper punch on Mitch McGovern in the first quarter that cost Melbourne a shot at goal. Jack Viney also collected Lachie Fogarty in the head with a glancing blow in the third quarter.


Docherty dislocation a minor disruption
Sam Docherty had to wait more than a decade and 164 home and away games before he got his first taste of September action last week. The All-Australian’s second final looked over before half-time when he dislocated his left shoulder in a marking contest with Melbourne defender Judd McVee. But the veteran returned after the main break and played out the game, having an impact in important moments.

Sam Docherty celebrates after the first semi final between Melbourne and Carlton at the MCG, September 15, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Smith crisp up forward
Joel Smith had never kicked more than two goals in a game across his first six seasons at Melbourne, but with Simon Goodwin desperate for someone to step up in the absence of Harry Petty, Jacob van Rooyen and Ben Brown, it was Smith who played an important role. The 27-year-old finished three goals – the most on the ground.


MELBOURNE    3.3    4.7    7.11    9.17 (71)
CARLTON         2.2    5.3    7.5     11.7 (73)

Melbourne: Smith 3, Pickett 2, Fritsch 2, Langdon, Petracca 
Carlton: De Koning 2, Walsh 2, Motlop 2, Acres 2, Kennedy, Curnow, Owies

Melbourne: May, Oliver, Viney, Smith, Petracca
Walsh, Cripps, Newman, De Koning, Weitering, Saad

Melbourne: Nil
Cripps (nose), Docherty (shoulder)

Melbourne: Josh Schache (unused)
Ollie Hollands (replaced David Cuningham in the fourth quarter)

Crowd: 96,412 at the MCG