ESSENDON produced a scintillating attacking first-half display to take a big step towards finals footy with an 18-point victory over fellow top-eight hopefuls Adelaide at Marvel Stadium on Sunday.
With the two sides occupying seventh and eighth coming into the contest, the result was always going to have major top eight repercussions, with Essendon leapfrogging Adelaide, the Western Bulldogs and St Kilda up to fifth on the ladder with the 17.13 (115) to 15.7 (97) win.
BOMBERS v CROWS Full match coverage and stats
For the Crows, the defeat sees them slip outside the top eight to ninth spot after Geelong's victory over North Melbourne earlier on Sunday.
Essendon's triumph was set up by a thrilling first half where it generated 21 scores for 12 goals from 40 inside 50s, racing to a 37-point half-time lead which they preserved in the second half against the second-best offence in the competition who kept on coming.
The Bombers' first-half dominance was underlined by 70 more disposals (232-152), mostly uncontested, and 22 more inside 50s (40-18) before half-time.
Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish were outstanding in midfield with 39 disposals each, while Peter Wright was a handful for Adelaide's defence all game, finishing with three goals with a game-high 10 score involvements.
Kyle Langford also booted three goals, taking his season tally to 32.
Brandon Zerk-Thatcher and Jayden Laverde were strong in defence, restricting Coleman Medal leader Taylor Walker to two goals, while Dyson Heppell was exceptional in the second half as Adelaide tried to rally.
Reilly O'Brien was strong in the ruck for Adelaide with 39 hitouts and 14 disposals, while Mitch Hinge (27 disposals), Rory Laird (31) and Jordan Dawson (28) were among the Crows' best, the latter responding after a quiet first half by his standards.
The Bombers raced out of the blocks in a blistering start, with dashing half-back Mason Redman kicking truly from 55m within 25 seconds with the Bombers' trademark rebound on full show. In fact, Essendon booted five goals from eight inside 50s within the first 12 minutes of the game, fuelled by an early 7-1 centre clearance dominance, with Merrett's long-range goal among that span.
But after Essendon opened up a 27-point lead following Nic Martin's set shot goal, the Crows hit back with four of the next five, with Walker's high-flying mark over Heppell setting up Riley Thilthorpe's major.
Matt Guelfi's late snap helped Essendon claim a 17-point quarter-time lead and record its highest-ever first-quarter score against the Crows with 7.6.
The sides went goal for goal early in the second with Guelfi's brilliant smother leading to Ben Hobbs' composed snap from the next stoppage, only for round 17 Rising Star nominee Luke Pedlar to quickly respond with a classy finish for his second.
Wright added his second from his fifth shot on goal after some precise team ball movement before Jye Menzie caught Rory Sloane holding the ball to convert with the Dons holding a 37-point half-time lead.
The Crows started to wrestle back the game on their terms, with Dawson dropping behind the ball for 11 third-quarter disposals, but they couldn't put their territory dominance – which included 15 consecutive inside 50s – on the scoreboard with the teams scoring two goals each.
It seemed like party time had begun for Essendon when Jake Stringer goaled from the boundary line early in the last but Adelaide kept coming, stringing together three in a row to close within 24 points after Izak Rankine's second, also from a tough angle.
But Langford added his third and Martin grabbed another to seal the points for the Bombers, although the Crows managed the last three goals to ease the percentage blow, which may come into calculations ahead of September.
Crows' road woes continue
For all of Adelaide's improvement this year, their away form is alarming, managing only one win from seven games away from Adelaide Oval this year. The Crows' only away win came in round six against 16th-placed Hawthorn in Launceston. It is a problem Adelaide has battled throughout Matthew Nicks' time as coach, winning three of 10 away games last year and three of 11 in 2021. The good news is four of Adelaide's remaining seven games are at home as they jostle for a top-eight spot, but there are tough trips away against Melbourne and Brisbane, before rounding out their home-and-away campaign against West Coast at Optus Stadium.
Is Zach the All-Australian captain elect?
Merrett may be a first-year skipper at Essendon but he's taken his game to another level in 2023 with the added responsibility. The Dons onballer set the tone with his early tackle on Rory Laird, providing the opportunity for Redman's goal inside the first minute, while he was a calming influence throughout and finished with 39 touches, including 11 contested possessions, seven inside 50s, seven score involvements and five intercept possessions. Merrett seems set for All-Australian honours as one of this year's elite two-way midfielders, but perhaps the added honour of representative captain is on the cards too.
Essendon sweating on Phillips and Ridley
Essendon's ruck stocks have been depleted lately by Sam Draper's absence with a hip injury but they may be further hit after Andrew Phillips' late head-high bump to Reilly O'Brien. The incident, which drew a free-kick for high contact, will attract Match Review Officer scrutiny given Phillips ignored the ball and connected with the Crows' big man's head, although he was able to get up and take his kick. Essendon will also be sweating on Jordan Ridley's fitness after succumbing to a knee injury, which initially looked serious, only to return after treatment before he was subbed out soon after.
ESSENDON 7.6 12.9 14.13 17.13 (115)
ADELAIDE 5.1 7.2 9.5 15.7 (97)
Essendon: Wright 3, Langford 3, Menzie 2, Guelfi 2, Martin 2, Redman, Merrett, Hobbs, Kelly, Stringer
Adelaide: Pedlar 2, Keays 2, Rankine 2, Walker 2, Thilthorpe, McHenry, Fogarty, Jones, Smith, Sloane, Murphy
Essendon: Parish, Merrett, Wright, McGrath, Zerk-Thatcher, Heppell, Laverde
Adelaide: Laird, O'Brien, Dawson, Hinge, Smith
Essendon: Ridley (knee)
Essendon: Dylan Shiel (replaced Jordan Ridley in the third quarter)
Adelaide: Harry Schoenberg (replaced Jake Soligo in the third quarter)
Crowd: 39,606 at Marvel Stadium