As a child, I used to love watching Abbott and Costello movies in the school holidays and like most kids, would have a good cackle at the famous ''who's on first?'' routine. While not portraying the Essendon scenario in the same comedic light, we now have our own musical-chair version: ''Who comes eighth?''
With each permutation and possibility, we arrive at a different club, with the candidates coming from Carlton, North Melbourne, Adelaide and the Brisbane Lions – even West Coast is a mathematical chance to continue its season for one more weekend. It is worth taking a closer look at the sides in contention to take the Bombers' place in the finals, in what is really a race in three – Carlton, North Melbourne and the sneaky outsider, Adelaide.
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The battle for the last finals spot
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Carlton has shown glimpses of form over the past month without getting the results it needed to secure a finals berth. All year the Blues have struggled with the evolution of the Mick Malthouse game plan. Early in the year it was a continuation of the post-Collingwood model in which long kicking and around-the-boundary were the preferred way home.
It seems Mick has had to evolve, especially with the enforced absence of Jarrad Waite as his main "go-to" marking target, and the mid-season form of Jeff Garlett that led to the Blues playing a quicker brand of football, with play-on and corridor ball movement the feature.
Areas of strength for Carlton include its touted midfield unit, settled with Robbie Warnock in the ruck (having Matthew Kreuzer to return from injury, will be a nice luxury for any possible finals action), plus Marc Murphy, Chris Judd, worker-bees Mitch Robinson and Brock McLean and their preferred tagger, Ed Curnow. Although, of course, Judd and McLean are injured this week. The Blues are fourth in hit-outs and fifth overall for clearances, including being ranked second at around-the-ground stoppages.
Carlton also ranks sixth in rebounds and Kade Simpson has been instrumental in this area. Bryce Gibbs has returned to form over the past month and will be critical if the Blues are to beat Port Adelaide this weekend, or do any damage in the finals. Carlton also edges the others in its contested-ball ranking (3rd).
North Melbourne has a tough, but not impossible, assignment on Sunday against Collingwood at the MCG. After six losses of nine points or less and a percentage of 120, the Roos are undoubtedly the best-credentialled team vying for eighth.
North also boasts a much-vaunted midfield, led by Todd Goldstein in the ruck (North ranks third in hit-outs) and with such midfielders as their injured captain Andrew Swallow, classy Daniel Wells, the big-bodied Jack Ziebell, Ryan Bastinac, Levi Greenwood and Ben Cunnington, its midfield depth shades the Blues and is as good as any in the competition.
North is fourth in clearances overall and centre-bounce clearances. The Roos are No. 1 for disposal efficiency and can be potent in front of goal, averaging 15.5 goals a week (3rd).
Adelaide, after its brilliant first year under Brenton Sanderson, has been the topsy-turvy team from tumbletown. Obviously affected in attack by the loss of Kurt Tippett (now at Sydney) and Taylor Walker's season-ending knee injury, the Crows have had nail-biting results on both sides of the win/loss ledger. The amazing win against Geelong was followed by the disappointing loss to bitter rival, the resurgent Port Adelaide.
Although they have genuine fire-power through their midfield in Patrick Dangerfield, Rory Sloane and Scott Thompson, they have been let down by the inconsistent form of Sam Jacobs and Bernie Vince. Quite simply, too much has been left to too few and their ranking of 16th in the competition for tackles tells the story of a team that needs to roll up its sleeves.
The Crows will need other results to go their way and victory over the West Coast by a significant margin.
An intriguing round awaits us. Carlton needs to win to kill off the others' chances. If the Blues lose, the door is open for the Brisbane Lions, although they face the mountain of Geelong at Geelong. Carlton and Brisbane losses would mean North and Adelaide remain "alive".
If Adelaide can't beat the clearly "flat" West Coast by a big enough margin to squeeze ahead of Carlton, all eyes will be on the MCG on Sunday for another big game where strangely enough, the Carlton coach and supporters will be barracking madly for arch enemy Collingwood to quell the Roo uprising.
*The opposition analyst works in that role for an AFL club.