Melbourne v Geelong at Optus Stadium, 5.50pm AWST
NO LATE CHANGES
Melbourne: James Jordon
Geelong: Shaun Higgins
DEMONS v CATS Follow it LIVE
After a classic clash in round 23 to decide the minor premier, Melbourne and Geelong meet just three weeks later to determine which team will progress to the Toyota AFL Grand Final. The Demons got through their qualifying final unscathed and have had a week off to rest and recover. They have, however, lost Joel Smith and replaced him with veteran half-back Michael Hibberd. Jayden Hunt was overlooked despite recovering from an ankle injury, and Nathan Jones and Jake Melksham were also left hanging. The Cats are without Brandan Parfitt after his season was ended by a hamstring injury in the semi-final. Zach Guthrie comes into the side, while Shaun Higgins, Luke Dahlhaus and Quinton Narkle are among the emergencies with Narkle replacing Sam Simpson, who has suffered a concussion.
Where and when: Optus Stadium, Friday September 10, 5.50pm AWST
WHAT HAPPENED THIS YEAR?
The Demons delivered an epic comeback to secure the minor premiership for the first time since 1964. It took a goal after the siren from Max Gawn to complete the victory, as the Cats had skipped away to a 44-point lead in the third term before the Demons stormed home. Clayton Oliver (37 disposals, two goals) and Gawn (25, one) starred for the victors, while Tom Hawkins kicked four goals for the Cats.
‘MATCHUP CATCHUP’ is now streaming in AFL On Demand
The Demons announced themselves as genuine contenders with an emphatic win in the wet over last year's runners-up. Christian Petracca (36 disposals, nine clearances, two goals) was at his imposing best and Bayley Fritsch (four goals) also mastered the slippery conditions. Joel Selwood (30 touches, seven tackles) led the way for the Cats while Tom Hawkins' stray elbow left Steven May with a gruesome eye injury.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
A midfield led by Max Gawn, Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and Jack Viney can batter opponents and has helped the Demons top the League for contested ball (ave 148). But like the Demons, the Cats have only lost the contested battle four times and the count was even at 140 each in round 23. Whether the Demons can rely on their ability to win the ball at stoppages and especially around the ground again looms as a crucial area of the game.
Last week was the first time this season the Cats selected all of Tom Hawkins, Jeremy Cameron, Esava Ratugolea and Gary Rohan in the forward line, with Mark Blicavs in defence and Rhys Stanley in the ruck. It's a towering set-up that could stretch the Demons' defence and ensure their intercept marking masters Jake Lever (ave 4.3, most in the League) and Steven May (2.6) are more accountable rather than focused on turning defence into attack.
THE STATS THAT MATTER
Melbourne has had a settled team for much of the season with 10 players lining up in every match and another four only missing one. Even the Demons' regulars should now be well rested and ready to take advantage of the break between finals, just as 28 of the 32 qualifying final-winning teams did on their way to a Grand Final in the years before the pre-finals bye was introduced.
The Cats are on familiar ground after making 12 preliminary finals in the past 18 seasons and seven in Chris Scott's 11-year reign as coach. They broke a streak of four losses in the penultimate week to make last year's Grand Final and with a battle-hardened midfield, and the addition of Jeremy Cameron and Isaac Smith this season, are again primed to return to the decider.
IT'S A BIG WEEK FOR…
An influential ruckman is the point of difference that could drive the Demons to a Grand Final. Max Gawn is a five-time Therabody AFL All-Australian and showed in the round 23 clash between these teams that he can outrun and outclass the athletic but inconsistent Rhys Stanley. A performance similar to Gawn's 25 disposals, seven clearances and six marks in that game would surely have a huge bearing on this match.
Joel Selwood was quieter than usual in the Cats' semi-final win with only 14 disposals but is built for finals and will line up in one for the 37th time on Friday. The Cats captain is sure to take on a crucial role and it could be to contain Clayton Oliver after Selwood beat him in disposals (18-12), contested ball (10-9) and clearances (5-4) when they went head-to-head for 49 minutes in round 23.
Melbourne by five points. Matches between the Demons and Cats have been decided in the dying seconds four times in four seasons, and with the teams so evenly matched another thriller looks on the cards.