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Hird confident about Essendon in the finals

Essendon coach James Hird has a spring in his step as the club's finals hopes start to look healthier.

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Wherever the cards fall in the unholy legal and political mess that has emerged from the Essendon drugs scandal, Saturday night's clash between the Bombers and bitter rival Carlton looms large.

Only last week, the round 22 match seemed a mere curtain-raiser to the club's showdown with the AFL Commission. But Carlton's upset victory over Richmond changed all that.

Now the Blues, should they beat the Bombers, are an even-money chance to play finals even if Essendon continues to legally hold the season to ransom and is allowed to play in September. And should Essendon be stripped in the coming weeks of premiership points - still a real possibility - the Blues are as good as in.

Carlton's Bryce Gibbs and Richmond's Nathan Foley match wits during the round 21 clash. The Blues' upset victory over the Tigers has given it an outside chance of making the eight.

Carlton's Bryce Gibbs and Richmond's Nathan Foley match wits during round 21. The Blues' upset victory over the Tigers has given them an outside chance of making the eight. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

Carlton's coaches were expected to caution their players against sledging their opponents at the MCG on Saturday night. And coach Mick Malthouse has been made aware of the potential pitfalls of commenting on the Essendon scandal for a third week running.

Blues president Stephen Kernahan has made his distaste well known in the past of clubs commenting on other clubs' business - but Malthouse deserves some credit for speaking out about Essendon just as he did for taking a stand more than a decade ago over racism in the game.

No other coaching statesman appears to have grasped the seriousness of the Essendon story - certainly not publicly. Leigh Matthews has strangely suggested the Bombers could be scapegoats and Kevin Sheedy remains hopelessly conflicted.

But Malthouse laid the challenge squarely at the AFL two weeks ago. ''This is going to be solved and remembered for as much about the governance of the game as it is about Essendon,'' he said. ''I hope, if there's penalties to be passed down, that they're not scared of it.''

Then, last week, Malthouse predicted the season would end in a shambles because of Essendon. On that he appears on the money.

Every other club in the competition is becoming increasingly disenchanted with Essendon, but the message spreading through Visy Park this week is that now is not the time to compound concern at the Bombers' behaviour.

As Carlton chief executive Greg Swann said on SEN on Tuesday, Essendon's form slump must turn around at some stage.

Swann also suggested Chris Judd's instructions for the next fortnight had changed following the club's renewed September hope.

For Carlton, timing is everything. And Judd was not the only one with an extra spring in his step. The Blues board met on Monday night and that was a happier gathering for Kernahan and co than it would have been had the meeting been scheduled for the previous Monday after the loss to the Western Bulldogs. One week made all the difference. After round 21, the Blues were not so bad and neither was the loss to the Bulldogs.

Having sacked the unfortunate Brett Ratten because the Blues could not compete consistently against top teams - and because Malthouse was available - Kernahan said earlier this year he would not attempt to stick around for the club's 150th season in 2014 if the Blues ended the season with a string of losses. Before the Richmond win, the club faced five potential successive defeats to round out 2013.

Now Kernahan appears likely to remain as president while directors Ahmed Fahour and Richard Newton continue to manoeuvre for the top job in 12 months.

And if Essendon has any on-field fight left, then Saturday night looms as a grudge match given the relationship between the two teams. It was revealed by Fairfax Media that Carlton secretly taped a chemist in a bid to uncover the Bombers' sport science practices after that club monstered the Blues early last year.

The full list of grudges is too long but Malthouse's recent pronouncements certainly fuelled the fire for Essendon. And his coaching effort on Saturday established round 22 as an early elimination final.