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Close, but Eagles will win

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Michael Voss

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Pies expect Eagles to go tall

Collingwood assistant coach Ben Hart expects all the Eagles' talls to start in Saturday's AFL semi-final

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THIS is one of those games where there is history and logic and there is gut instinct.

History says Collingwood, having finished top four and been stung by a first-up finals loss to Hawthorn, will bounce back and do what most top-four sides have done since 2000 and make the preliminary final.

It makes sense. After all, Collingwood was beaten by the red- hot premiership favourite, and West Coast trampled a North Melbourne outfit that had seemingly hit the wall a couple of weeks earlier.

Magpie Dale Thomas. The man for Matt Priddis when the Eagle is on the ball.

Magpie Dale Thomas. The man for Matt Priddis when the Eagle is on the ball. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

But the more I pondered things this week, the more I thought West Coast would beat the top-four hoodoo at the MCG tonight and send the Pies out in straight sets.

The tribunal was the double whammy, which tipped me over the line.

Collingwood will miss the leadership, direction and defence of suspended skipper Nick Maxwell, and West Coast's mountainous forward line will be at full strength after Quinten Lynch's successful appeal against a suspension.

Pies coach Nathan Buckley will have spent many hours pondering his match-ups down back, and how to stop Jack Darling, Josh Kennedy, Lynch and Dean Cox or Nic Naitanui.

Darling is a running machine so he'll need Buckley's fittest defender - Chris Tarrant. He stays on the lead really well.

Ben Reid is best suited to take the deepest opposition forward so he should take Cox and Naitanui when they are resting in the forward line.

Lynch will lead up the field to connect, so a little bit of speed to get the ball to ground will help Harry O'Brien in that contest. Importantly, O'Brien must run on counter-attack to be effective against a bigger opponent.

That leaves Nathan Brown on Kennedy.

But regardless of individual match-ups, it must be a team defence approach all over the ground. Collingwood must pressure the ball carrier and stop West Coast getting on top in the midfield. That's where the game will be won and lost.

GAME STYLE

West Coast's game style is all about creating aerial pressure deep inside 50. The Eagles are happy to use the footy in the back half to open up space and slingshot it through the midfield, but then it's long to big targets deep in attack.

Collingwood's game has been built on a rock-solid defence, but that's slipped a little and must return tonight. It has become more about pure numbers through the midfield, with the likes of Scott Pendlebury, Dane Swan and Dayne Beams. Importantly, how well do they use the ball?

STRENGTHS

Because West Coast is so predictable and direct going into forward 50, it is well set up defensively if it turns the ball over. The Eagles are hard to counter-attack against.

Effectively, they challenge their opposition to take the ball coast-to-coast by their positioning of the ball inside 50. The percentages of doing that are low - especially in finals.

WEAKNESSES

West Coast is a wonderfully rounded outfit in excellent working order at the right time of year. Collingwood has more things it must get right, especially its man-on-man defence. Form doesn't lie, and sudden-death finals aren't the time to be searching for form.

KEY MATCH-UPS

In line with the need for greater defensive pressure, it might be time for Collingwood to break with its normal ''no-tagging'' policy in the midfield and adopt more of a defensive mindset. Certainly the Magpies need more accountability in this part of the ground or West Coast will cut them apart. Jarryd Blair goes to Daniel Kerr, for mine. Kerr is such an aggressive runner and has the potential to have a huge impact on the outcome. He cannot be allowed to run free.

Two of the biggest players in this game could be Steele Sidebottom and Dale Thomas. They must have an impact. I'd send Thomas to Matt Priddis. Not full-time. But when Priddis is on the ball I'd be saying to Thomas, ''he is your responsibility''. West Coast will stick with what it normally does through the midfield, but may send Scott Selwood to run with Beams.

X-FACTOR

Nic Naitanui. While we know what we'll get from Cox, the big Fijian is a little less predictable as the other half of a ruck combination. But his presence is not. When he plays with aggression there is a notable difference within the whole team. It's rare to see one player of his age have that much influence.

Sidebottom and Thomas are proven big-game performers who run the lines hard and carry the ball from one end to the other. And they've got a big upside on recent form.

PREDICTION

Toss of a coin.

West Coast by 5 points.

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