Round 20 looms large in shaping AFL finals

The loss of Geelong’s Patrick Dangerfield to suspension gives the Swans a potential edge in a game that is crucial for their finals hopes. 

By LAURENCE ROSEN

The inherent beauty in sport is its unpredictability and in 2017, the AFL season has delivered it repeatedly.

Expect the unexpected is the mantra and after 19 rounds of football, just four remain to decide the many narratives of this unique season.

The so called “lesser” sides are taking it up to the league’s best and in terms of pure margins, matches are being decided by moments rather than quarters.

This weekend’s matchups may finally begin to shape the outcome of this season. For years, the final month of the season has seen little, if any change to the outcome of the top eight, but that isn’t the case in 2017.

Four sides sit on 40 points, with another two on 36. Closer to the top, just six points separate the current top four.

In a season of fluctuating form, the upcoming round may finally see the contenders begin to emerge as the final makeup of the eight begins to take shape.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

No Dangerfield, no worries?

In what’s been the story of the week, Patrick Dangerfield’s Brownlow defence came crashing down after he was suspended for a dangerous tackle on Matthew Kreuzer. But generally, Geelong have more pressing matters – taking on Sydney without him.

The Cats and Swans matchup at Simonds Stadium may begin to shape the makeup of the eight. Geelong are a game and considerable percentage off top spot and need to keep winning to topple  Adelaide off the top of the ladder.

As for the Swans, their predicament is a little more perilous. After losing to Hawthorn, they’re back in the pack and suddenly look vulnerable after a remarkable run following their 0-6 start. Lose this game against a Dangerfield-less Cats outfit and they could find themselves out of the eight at the end of the round.

It’s all to play for.

The Giants picked up an important win against Fremantle last weekend. 

SATURDAY AFTERNOON SPECIALS

According to Champion Data, Greater Western Sydney’s matchup with Melbourne is the fourth-most important matchup in the race for the top four spots on the ladder. The stakes are high in Canberra on Saturday afternoon.

While Melbourne has likely blown their top four chances after a 17th straight loss to North Melbourne in Hobart last Saturday, the Giants need a scalp after a scratchy but ultimately successful performance against Fremantle last weekend.

They currently sit third on percentage but are only a game away from falling back into the elimination final spots. Whoever wins this will go a long way to locking in their desired final position.

Over at the MCG, the Essendon versus Carlton matchup is of less significance in the overall scheme of things but in the context of Essendon’s early-season loss to the Blues, it looms as a danger game. The Bombers still have enough winnable games to make the eight but after a loss to the resurgent Western Bulldogs last weekend, there’s no room to slip up for the Dons.

 

Hawthorn coach Alistair Clarkson has reinvented his team since the bye.

SUPER SUNDAY

In a season that will go down as one of the greatest in the 21st century, days like Sunday’s typify just how close season 2017 has been. All three games have monumental ramifications for the shape of the eight.

St Kilda and West Coast kick things off at Etihad Stadium. After the Saints managed to give up a 10-point lead to Port Adelaide in less than 90 seconds in Adelaide last week, they are in desperate need of a bounce-back win.

The Saints enter round 20 a game and percentage out of the eight and likely need to win their last four to sneak into eighth spot. Their opponents West Coast lost to Collingwood a fortnight ago and can effectively end St Kilda’s slim finals hopes with a win. Champion Data rates this game as the second-most important left this season in terms of determining the top eight.

Across the city, Richmond and Hawthorn do battle at the MCG in what looms as a high stakes battle for both sides. The Tigers find themselves fourth and just percentage off third after a 2017 resurgence led by Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin and a trio of small forwards.

Richmond are ranked 17th in the league for total disposals but top the league in tackles inside 50. The game plan is clear – pressure the Hawks into submission.

Clarkson has re-invented Hawthorn after a bye through numerous moves that should see him in the running for coach of the year. Jack Gunston now spends most of his time on ground in defence while the promising Daniel Howe has taken many scalps as a tagger in the second half of the year. Expect Howe to go to either Martin or Cotchin.

This ultimately is a last-roll-of-the-dice clash for the Hawks who are 2½ games outside the eight. On the flipside, if the Tigers can win this tricky clash, a date with Geelong and probable top-two shootout looms the weekend after.

Finishing off Sunday’s blockbuster line-up is Adelaide and Port Adelaide. It hardly seems fair that a match such as this is relegated to the often-criticised 4.40pm Sunday timeslot. But with a raucous crowd in attendance, this shapes up as one of the most critical showdowns of the year.

Port Adelaide boast the second-best percentage in the league after Adelaide and, in doing so, are just a game and a slipup from GWS or Richmond away from sneaking back into the top four. Their last-gasp win over the Saints keeps their double chance hopes alive.

The Power get the Crows at a good time, on the back of their thrilling draw with Collingwood at the MCG last Sunday. While it was admirable the Crows came back from a 50-point third-quarter deficit, it highlighted the deficiencies opposition sides will look to exploit during the finals.

Adelaide will be looking to get back to winning ways and should have no problems lifting for the cross-town clash.

Port Adelaide could become vulnerable with a loss while for the top-of-the-ladder Crows, a much-improved performance will be needed to defeat the Power.