IT GOES without saying that there’s always something on the line when Essendon takes on Carlton. Two big clubs that, with 16 premierships each, boast the mantle of the AFL’s most successful outfit. Today, as usual, there’s much pride at stake. But a lot more besides.
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It’s been, by their own lofty standards, a pretty barren decade or so for the Bombers and the Blues, neither having even come close to a flag for the bulk of that period. As a result, much as each club dislikes the other, they still share plenty, not the least being frustrated fan bases pining for the old days.

A token finals appearance this season won’t do a lot to appease those masses, but will at least stop a much larger wave of discontent after a year that for each has at times been a frightening roller-coaster ride.

Essendon and Carlton have taken very different paths yet somehow arrive at this critical juncture at the same point – finals hopes hanging by a thread. And with seasons seriously derailed by injuries.

Their round-four meeting seems an eternity ago. It wasn’t so much a Sliding Doors moment, as the first of a series of swings and roundabouts.

While both were undefeated, Essendon went in very much an underdog after three relatively uninspiring wins. Hardly the form of a contender. Carlton, meanwhile, had just beaten Collingwood by 10 goals and had taken over as the flag favourite.

But Essendon stunned the Blues. The final margin of 30 points was not nearly as telling as the way the Dons stifled Carlton at the stoppages, then spread from them far more effectively. Two questions emerged. Did the Blues have a significant Achilles heel? And did we indeed have another genuine contender?

Essendon and Carlton shared another significant moment on the Saturday of round 10, albeit an unwanted one, with injuries beginning to bite deep into their lists. But it was hardly the sole reason for what was to unfold.

The Blues, having had their confidence dented by St Kilda, then Adelaide, were belted by struggling Port Adelaide by 54 points a fortnight later, managing just two goals after half-time. The Dons, meanwhile, boasting an 8-1 win-loss record, somehow contrived to hand Melbourne, at the lowest of ebbs, its first victory of the season.

That was certainly a turning point for Essendon, which was losing players to soft-tissue injuries left, right and centre. Carlton, with a similarly lengthy queue at the medical-room door, would end up losing four on end, but was competitive at least against Geelong and West Coast. Then when it was humiliated by Hawthorn in round 14, its scorecard was 6-7 and the speculation about coach Brett Ratten’s future was at its most feverish.

The Bombers’ own version, minus the coaching speculation, came the following week, courtesy of a 71-point belting at the hands of St Kilda.

Two huge jolts to confidence and standing – to which there can be little doubt that it is Carlton that has responded best.

If the Blues’ round-three defeat of Collingwood was their best performance this season, the massive against-the-odds win over the Pies in round 15 was a close second. Including that victory, they have won four of their past six matches, and with playing stocks still depleted, have turned up some genuine prospects in Levi Casboult and Tom Bell.

Essendon’s smacking by the Saints was just a taste of what was to come. The Bombers then lost to Geelong by 67 points and Hawthorn by 94. The rot stopped against Adelaide (when the Bombers got within four points), but then there was another disappointment against North Melbourne last week. An 8-1 record has turned to 11-8.

Two more wins will probably help the Dons scrape into September. Carlton needs a hat-trick of them, and some stumbles from those above.

Most of the missing names for both teams are now back. One C. Judd for Carlton. Also Kade Simpson, Jarrad Waite and Andrew Walker. For Essendon, it’s Paddy Ryder, Brent Stanton and David Zaharakis. If you’d been here for the round-four clash then left the country for a few months, you might think not a lot had changed.

But this has been a year of living dangerously for both. One with a potential sting in the tail left yet. But also, this afternoon, the chance for two great foes to inflict a fatal wound on the other; a dagger to the heart which, given the circumstances, would be relished even more than usual.

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