North's Nathan Grima chases Essendon's Stewart Crameri.

North's Nathan Grima chases Essendon's Stewart Crameri. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

It's not often you'll find the top two teams on the AFL ladder meeting this late in the season and not hear the phrase potential grand final preview being bandied about.

But even the most optimistic of Essendon supporters would be loath to slap that tag on Friday night's clash with Hawthorn at Etihad Stadium. For a number of legitimate reasons.

We'll dispense with the off-field reason first, that the Bombers might end up second after the home and away rounds and not play finals at all if they are stripped of their points as a result of the supplements scandal.

Hawthorn and Essendon goalkickers.

Hawthorn and Essendon goalkickers.

Yet even leaving those considerable matters aside, there's barely a pundit in the land who believes this year's premier isn't going to come from Hawthorn, Geelong, Sydney or, at a pinch, Fremantle.

That's partly down to an in-built suspicion about any side that climbs suddenly into the top echelons of the ladder. But there's also more well-founded doubts about the Dons' flag capacity, and why many are reserving judgment until after this week's square-off with the old enemy.

While arguably Hawthorn's biggest improvement on its near-miss of 2012 has come in its spreading of the goalkicking load among several forwards and reducing the dependence on Lance Franklin, Essendon's forward structure is still very much a work in progress, and that progress is at best gradual.

Superficially, there isn't much difference. Hawthorn is a clear No.1 for points scored, but Essendon is not that far off the pace at No.3, only nine points per game fewer than the Hawks. Neither is there much of a gap in conversion rates for shots at goal - Hawthorn going currently at 57.8 per cent, Essendon 55.6, both having improved markedly on last year.

The gap between the respective forward lines is in terms of reliable avenues to the scoreboard and how those goals are generated.

Hawthorn's top five goalkickers have registered 157 goals already this season, Jarryd Roughead and Franklin with 88 and the ever-improving Luke Breust and Jack Gunston sharing nearly 60.

Essendon's top five have more scant returns, with an aggregate of just 98 goals. The Bombers' leading goalkicker is Stewart Crameri with 28, next best a resting ruckman in Tom Bellchambers with 22.

Essendon's would-be spearhead Michael Hurley has struggled in attack of late, as coach James Hird considers far more frequently the option of the switch between him and key defender Jake Carlisle.

Joe Daniher has had only a small taste of AFL football, while Scott Gumbleton continues to be overlooked.

The Bombers have had to improvise around goals far more than Friday night's opponent, reflected in its differential ranking for marks inside 50 of only 10th compared with Hawthorn's second.

Despite its reasonable accuracy, it doesn't have quite the efficiency its No.1 differential ranking both for disposals and inside-50s should reflect, the Dons ranked third and fifth respectively for differentials on goals and percentage of goals from inside-50s compared with the Hawks' first and second.

Conversion has become a byword for Hawthorn, which learnt the hard way, via last year's grand final, that you simply have to nail your chances. It has worked hard to make sure it does this time around. Consequently, its conversion rate has increased significantly from 53.2 per cent last season.

''Considering we put a real focus on that at the start of the year, that has been good,'' said skipper Luke Hodge on Monday. Indeed, that accurate kicking may be all it takes for the Hawks to go a couple of goals better than they did on grand final day last year.

Essendon, though, still has a bit of work to do convince the sceptics it is made of grand final material. A win over Hawthorn will go part of the way to doing so. But a win featuring a couple of imposing and multiple goalkicking key forwards, and a bigger rate of inside-50 entries that don't come pinging back out again, will do even more.