AN ELIMINATION final in June. Carlton's faltering season could revive or fall tonight in a game its rival, Hawthorn, is expecting to be fought with finals intensity.
For Hawthorn, just as crucially, this is the game it needs to win as a springboard into the top four.
The Hawks believe Carlton has set this match as the moment to take a stand on its season, which has been gradually disappearing with every additional injury.
Tonight's clash is do-or-die for the Blues. Photo: Paul Rovere
Notwithstanding the Blues' lengthy injury list, and with the versatile Lachie Henderson missing training yesterday as he battles a groin injury which may yet keep him out of the game, they have resolved that they cannot allow narrow losses to accumulate and need to make a stand if they retain a hope of making the finals.
''We have heard Carlton are treating this game like an elimination final, and look, we welcome that,'' Hawthorn president Andrew Newbold said yesterday.
''We have had some good wins but we want to see if our game plan and attitude stand up to the test against a team such as Carlton in the heat of a match they are treating like a final.
''We have a hard month ahead and this is the start of that … we are not resiling from it at all.
''Carlton will come out hard at us and that's a good thing for us heading into the second half of the year. We have some hard matches in the month ahead - Collingwood, Essendon and Geelong [after playing Greater Western Sydney and the Western Bulldogs] - and we have to start to win these games.
''We want to be top four and if we want to be there we have to beat these top sides like Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon and Geelong, so the ability to make top four is in our own hands, and we are pleased about that.''
After losing three of its opening five matches, Hawthorn has recovered, winning six of its past seven and is poised once more to claim a top-four spot.
But more important than the raw win-loss figure is the fact that three of Hawthorn's losses - Geelong by two points, West Coast (by five) in Perth and Sydney (by 37) - were against other sides vying for the top four.
The Hawks' best wins have come against Collingwood, in round one, and Adelaide.
Carlton president Stephen Kernahan was more circumspect about the importance of tonight's game as opposed to matches against other teams vying for a finals berth, but said that in the context of where the side is now: ''There's no doubt it's a huge game for us,'' he said. ''But look, we are 6-6 and there are 10 games to
go, so there is a lot of footy to be played. I am not worried about what Hawthorn is playing for or what they think of us or how we think about the game. We are worried only about what we are doing.
''We are not talking about finals or top four - we are talking about Hawthorn.''
Carlton will have to overcome not only a long injury list - with several players also carrying injuries - but also a poor record against Hawthorn, losing its past eight.
But tonight's match is at the MCG, a ground Carlton plays much better than Etihad Stadium, and Carlton and Hawthorn have seldom played their matches at the MCG in recent years.
They last played at the ground in 2009 when Brendan Fevola and Jarryd Roughead both kicked eight goals in a game that Hawthorn won by four points.
Carlton defender Michael Jamison conceded yesterday the Blues' season was on the line against one of the premiership contenders.
''We don't think we can afford to have too many losses like the past two, where we were happy with the intent but still didn't get the points,'' he said.
''We know that if we have a few more of them we're going to be staring at the wall. We certainly need to get some wins on the board pretty quickly, but we're not putting too much pressure on ourselves either … but I guess we play our best footy when our backs are up against it a little bit.
''Hopefully we can be the hunters rather than the hunted and see if that turns things around.''