Off target: Adam Goodes watches his shot miss last year.

Off target: Adam Goodes watches his shot miss last year. Photo: Getty Images

ESSENDON and Sydney have been serving up quality games of football for a long time. And there's no reason to think tonight's clash at Etihad Stadium will see any departure from the usual script.

It's a fixture that has delivered regularly since they fought out a draw at the SCG early in 1996, the year in which the Swans emerged from the gloom to a spot in a grand final, and a level of consistent competitiveness they've retained since.

That remains the only tie between the clubs in 211 meetings, but there's been a host of nail-biters. Ten of the 25 games since then have been decided by 10 points or less, four of them by a solitary point, another couple by just two. The past three clashes have been determined by an aggregate of 15 points.

The last of those was the epic round 20 meeting at Etihad last year, when Adam Goodes' post-siren shot from 50 metres faded just wide of the left-hand goal post. Of course, he isn't the only Swan to shoot for victory against Essendon after the final bell.

That honour, famously, also rested with Tony Lockett at the SCG in the 1996 preliminary final, when a point from "Plugger" was enough to send his team into its first grand final for 41 years.

Indeed, there's been more than adequate lashings of drama with these two. Take Steve Alessio rescuing Essendon from what had seemed certain defeat with a goal five seconds before the bell in 2001.

Or Ricky Mott missing a chance to pinch a win for Sydney in the first ever AFL game at what is now known as ANZ Stadium. Add to that a couple of dubious umpiring decisions in other games which have helped deal either side a win.

The results have swung back and forth too, with the past eight clashes between Essendon and Sydney split four apiece.

Right now, the Bombers - 8-2 this season but having received a reality check after losing to previously winless Melbourne - and the Swans - 7-3 and coming off a very impressive pasting of the Western Bulldogs - are neck and neck.

It's line-ball stuff, the only notable difference between them these days is the very different atmosphere in which they go about their business as a club.

Essendon has worked hard since the arrival of Kevin Sheedy as coach more than three decades ago to develop and maintain a presence as a powerhouse. It's certainly come a long way from the boring mediocrity in which it was mired during the 1970s.

The result has been that little the Bombers do, either on or off the field, goes unnoticed. Mostly, that's been an enormous plus, though there have been times over the past decade when Essendon has appeared to be concentrating too hard on the corporate and marketing stuff than the nuts and bolts of its core business, playing football.

That's something that has been put right again in the past couple of years. The return of the prodigal sons James Hird and Mark Thompson as coaches has also seen a determination to run a much tighter ship on the PR front, the belief that some big talking hadn't been matched by nearly big enough results.

Sydney, in contrast, has become the master of stealth. Not necessarily deliberately, mind you, the Swans always needing to stay as visible as possible in a rugby league town.

It's beyond the harbour city where they consistently go under the radar. In purely football terms, that's proved a huge bonus.

Take the recent coaching handover from Paul Roos to John Longmire. While at Collingwood, Nathan Buckley hasn't been able to grab a bite to eat without invoking some sort of comparison to predecessor Mick Malthouse's dietary habits, Longmire has been able to steer his own course for Sydney with barely a second glance.

The tinkering to the Swans' long-time game plan has been more than subtle in some cases yet escaped attention. So have consistent alterations to the senior list, not just the much-vaunted senior pick-ups from other clubs. Sydney has effectively rebuilt since the grand finals of 2005-06 without losing its competitiveness.

The serial under-rating of the Swans' chances each pre-season has become one of football's biggest in-jokes. But it's one fostered far more out of ignorance than disrespect.

So in 2012, we approach the halfway point of the season with Sydney yet again right in the hunt, Essendon sharing top spot on the ladder, both approaching their weekend off in good shape and ready to launch a serious assault on September.

History and form tells us it's going to be as tight as ever tonight.

The contrast will be in how the result is received. An Essendon win will be big, bold, brash, a bit like the Bombers as a club.

And if Sydney gets up, the Swans will once again just pack up, fly home, and get on with the job.