Liam Shiels.

Liam Shiels. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

No team under the current finals system has won the AFL premiership after finishing the home and away season outside the top four. That could change this year.

While there has clearly been standouts in the first half of 2014, the battle within the top eight is as fierce as I have ever seen. Injuries will conspire against some teams in the second half of the year, with fatigue, tough draws and inexperience all making a mark.

But such is the strength of all the sides in the hunt for the finals that it’s quite likely the make-up of the eight won’t change and the eventual premier could come from any of these clubs.

Clinton Young.

Clinton Young. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

1. Port Adelaide (Predicted finish: 1st)
Has been brilliant all year. Has taken an extra step up this season and it doesn't appear to have weaknesses. The big question will be whether it can sustain this level for the rest of the year.

Most improved: Robbie Gray - Has obviously had his injuries, but after finally getting some continuity on the field, he’s been outstanding. He just does all the right things. A small forward who kicks goals, applies pressure and is able to get plenty of the ball in the middle of the ground as well.

Room to improve: Justin Westhoff - Enjoying a good season, but he hasn’t been as strong as last year. The difference is only slight, but is probably more pronounced given his teammates have all lifted. Has the potential to take the second half of the year by storm.

Cameron Guthrie.

Cameron Guthrie. Photo: Getty Images

2. Hawthorn (Predicted finish: 4th)
The Hawks have been unbelievable considering their injuries to key personnel. They are a model of consistency and everyone who takes to the field for the Hawks truly plays their part. Will benefit from having Alastair Clarkson back in the coach’s box.

Most improved: Liam Shiels - Is a player who has come into the midfield without the likes of Sam Mitchell and  [Brad] Sewell and worked admirably in their absence.

Room to improve: David Hale - Clearly hasn’t played as much as he would have liked because of injury, but is returning and is one player who will make the Hawks far stronger with his experience in the ruck and up forward.

Sam Gibson.

Sam Gibson. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

3. Sydney (Predicted finish: 2nd)
Started the year slowly, but built into the season and now looks more ominous than any other team. Probably the most likely team to go all the way. A telling game looms against Port Adelaide.

Most improved: Ben McGlynn and Luke Parker - Parker has become one of Sydney’s new breed of hard men through the middle. He  also goes forward and kicks goals and is really strong above his head.

Room to improve: Adam Goodes - A dual Brownlow medallist who is still finding his feet after injury, but has been really quiet by his own standards. His roaming in the forward line really gives Sydney an X-factor. Expect a big second half, and that  which spells danger for all opposition defences.

4. Collingwood (Predicted finish: 5th)
Of all the sides in the top four, the Magpies surprise me the most. Their defence has defied inexperience and is really standing up. Coach Nathan Buckley needs to be credited for that. They’re proving that a champion team can beat teams of champions.

Most improved: Clinton Young and Jamie Elliott - Young is running off half-back and delivering the ball superbly with that exquisite left foot. Elliott is becoming a really dangerous small forward, who plays tall with a remarkable leap and finishes well.

Room to improve: Travis Cloke - Not much needs to be said. Is easily one of the most powerful and talented forwards in the league, but has been well below par. There’s a massive upside for the Magpies should he find form.

5. Geelong (Predicted finish: 6th)
It has once again been a very consistent first half of the year for the Cats, but what’s been most pleasing is that it hasn’t always been their guns, such as Joel Selwood and Steve Johnson, who have led the way. The likes of Mathew Stokes and Cameron Guthrie have really stood up.

Most improved: Cameron Guthrie - Has taken his game to another level, from average to very good.

Room to improve: Harry Taylor  - He’s an All-Australian centre half-back who can also swing forward, but has been slightly below par. He’ll be looking to have a vastly improved second half to the year.

6. Fremantle (Predicted finish: 3rd)
Started like a house on fire, smacking Collingwood in its opening match. Had a period of inconsistency, but now back to its defensive best.

Most improved: Aaron Sandilands - Is having a career-best year. It just shows what a good pre-season can do for this guy. He’s been almost impossible to spoil around the ground because he’s been in such good marking form.

Room for improvement: Chris Mayne - Had an injury interrupted year, but is starting to hit his straps. Expect him to be the Dockers’ lead-up forward and have a big impact in the race to September.

7. North Melbourne (Predicted finish: 7th)
I think the Kangas will be very pleased with the way they have played against the very best teams. They’ve beaten Sydney, Fremantle and Port Adelaide and have a pretty good draw in the second half of the year.

Most improved: Sam Gibson - For the Kangaroos to improve they needed players such as Gibson to step up, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Room to improve: Drew Petrie - Big Drew has had a really quiet first half, but showed some form last week. Expect more of that in the second half if the Kangas are to do some damage in the finals.

8. Gold Coast (Predicted finish: 8th)
May have arrived in the finals a year earlier than I thought, but its improvement can’t be denied. Just like Port Adelaide, its entire playing group has lifted. No longer does it rely on Gary Ablett. Instead, it has learnt from him.

Most improved: Dion Prestia - Producing what we all know he is capable of. Really showing the signs of being a good player. Will be looking to sustain his form to cap a great year.

Room to improve: Zac Smith - Has returned after serious injury. Expect him to have a massive second half of the year, which spells danger for opposition onballers.

THE REST

Of the sides outside the eight, few deserve credit other than Melbourne. The Dees, under Paul Roos, are finally showing some fight on the field, even if they’re finding it difficult to score.

Adelaide, Richmond, West Coast and Carlton are the AFL’s greatest underperformers. Much has been said about the Tigers’ woeful year, but the Crows and Eagles shouldn’t escape criticism, and the the Blues are not travelling as well as they should be, either. Their fans would have been expecting much more.

Players in some of these teams could be fighting for their careers in the back half of the year.