GEELONG coach Chris Scott has opened the door for luckless Cat Daniel Menzel to play his first AFL game in almost four years against St Kilda at Etihad Stadium next Saturday night.
Menzel's impending return would provide a major boost for the Cats, who are in danger of missing the top eight after a 36-point loss to Hawthorn on Saturday night saw them slip to ninth position on the ladder with three rounds to play.
Scott did not guarantee Menzel's selection for the game against the Saints after six stand-out performances at VFL level, but nor did he discount it.
"I am going to be careful to not get too carried away because I don't want to get him excited, mainly," Scott said after the loss to the Hawks.
The 23-year-old finished with three goals, 22 disposals and 10 clearances in a best-on-ground performance for the Cats against Box Hill earlier on Saturday.
"I said during the week that he's getting really close and after a strong performance today he is a little bit closer," Scott said.
Pressed further on when he would know whether Menzel was ready to return to the big time – after four knee reconstructions – Scott hinted that it could be as early as next week.
"Based on today, I am very confident he will play AFL football before the end of the season," Scott said.
It would be a remarkable return for Menzel, considering the heartache he has endured since first rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the 2011 qualifying final against the Hawks.
He has had three subsequent knee reconstructions – including a LARS procedure on his left knee – and had to shake off a hamstring complaint, as well as knee tendinitis, to be ready to play this season.
"We wouldn't have left him on our list for four years out of compassion. We have stuck with him because we truly believe that he can get back to elite level footy," Scott said.
Menzel could return in place of veteran James Kelly who was subbed out of the game against the Hawks in the third quarter due to an ankle injury.
Scott had not received an updated medical report but it appears Kelly, who is out of contract at year's end, is likely to miss a couple of weeks.
The Hawks' ability to control the ball under pressure and then make Geelong pay for its turnovers was the main difference in the game, according to Scott.
The Cats' bare cupboard of ruck options, with Mark Blicavs and Josh Walker forced to battle it out against experienced duo Ben McEvoy and David Hale, also presented a major disadvantage.
The Hawks dominated the hit-out count (59-25), which allowed them to gain the ascendancy from stoppages.
Even though the Cats were soundly beaten around the ball, Scott praised the work of midfielder Cameron Guthrie who finished with 30 disposals, five tackles, four clearances and three goals to be Geelong's best player.
"He (Guthrie) looked really strong, not just around the clearances but in transition as well. We are pleased with the way he is going," Scott said.