It was the last home game for Aaron Sandilands and Hayden Ballantyne.
Oh boy. I doubt this is what the folks at AFL HQ had in mind when they scheduled this match for the third Friday night of the season, but I’ll bet they – and their partners at Channel Seven – are delighted with the outcome nonetheless.
The Dees and Dons were two of the more fancied teams coming into this season, and – barring a draw – one of them is going to be in a 0-3 hole after tonight’s encounter.
Both of these sides have copped a whack for their play in the opening rounds, but it says a fair bit about Essendon that they’ve received the most heat despite the Demons coming off an 80-point loss.
The excuses have started for Melbourne, the main one being that they’re not yet up to full speed after an off-season in which a bunch of their important players went under the knife.
That could be true.
For all the macho chest-beating in sport about being fit once you cross the line, it’s not always the case. There can be valid excuses – one of the dirtiest words in sport – for why players or teams don’t perform to their best.
But the Demons might be getting off a little too lightly. They’ve got form here.
Let’s not forget the humiliating way their 2018 season came to an end in Perth, where they were goalless to half-time in their first preliminary final in forever. The eventual 66-point margin was about as flattering as a 66-point margin can be.
In Round 4, 2018, the Hawks hammered them by better than 11 goals. In 2017 they missed a finals series they had no right to miss.
One of the most replayed moments from their Round 2 loss was Geelong’s Tom Hawkins waiting in the goal square to hand second-gamer Jordan Clark his first goal.
Hawkins was praised for his selflessness and the act was pointed to as a sign of the good vibes emanating throughout Geelong.
What wasn’t mentioned was that the Demons had thrown in the towel and let an opponent embarrass them by standing in the goal square and waiting for his teammate to join him there.
It was a sequence that said plenty about both teams.
Of course that bit of play had nothing on the defining clip of Round 2 in which three Bombers – yes, three; Dylan Shiel’s not getting off the hook here – inexplicably ran to the bench while the ball was live in their area.
The Bombers have been without a couple of important players in Joe Daniher and Cale Hooker, but that doesn’t explain their listless opening rounds.
It’s all the more baffling given it comes on the back of a 2-6 start to 2018 that ultimately cost them finals.
There’s something wrong at Essendon.
The Demons, too, are without some important pieces.
Steven May’s delayed Melbourne debut was cut short by a groin injury, and he’ll be missed for the second time in three games. Fellow key defender Jake Lever isn’t yet fully mended after blowing out his ACL mid-2018.
Those absences shouldn’t be too exposed tonight with Daniher and Hooker also out.
Melbourne did a lot right last week, which is strange to say when a team kicked 14 fewer goals than their opponents.
The Demons won 15 more clearances and had 24 more inside-50s. Getting first hands to the ball and gaining territory are part of their DNA – they were No. 1 for centre clearance differential and inside-50 differential last season – and it’s a good place to start.
But Melbourne played dumb, banging the ball forward blindly on the narrow Kardinia Park where the Cats picked them off easily and punished them in transition.
They aren’t the first team to fall into this trap in Geelong and they won’t be the last.
Perhaps more concerning is that despite having 15 more clearances, the Demons actually lost the contested ball count by 18.
They spent too much energy getting first hands on the ball at stoppages and got burnt when the ball got to the edge or the outside of the congestion, and that’s dangerous.
The clearances should never be a problem for a team with Max Gawn, Clayton Oliver, Jack Viney and Angus Brayshaw. If they can get their balance back, they’ll figure things out sooner rather than later.
The Bombers need to lift everywhere. Zach Merrett has looked a shadow of the tough and dynamic midfielder he was early in his career. Prized recruit Shiel has been just okay at his new club. Dyson Heppell has tried his guts out and probably been the Dons’ best through two games.
But the problems run deeper than individuals. There’s a lack of cohesion and care in how Essendon have played.
It’s backs-to-the-wall stuff for both of these sides tonight and the loser will be rightly embarrassed to start 0-3 given how much talent is at their disposal.
For the winner, it’ll mean a chance to exhale and get on with the season. They’ll have the same record as the loser of Saturday night’s grand final rematch.
It might be giving them credit they don’t deserve, but I can’t see Melbourne being winless after three rounds. They’ve stunk slightly less than the Bombers and have a higher ceiling.
I’m tipping the Demons by 20 points.
That’s my Friday night forecast. What’s yours?