It’s fair to say that the first two months of the season haven’t gone as planned for either of these sides.
The Eagles are reasonably positioned with five wins but would be concerned that of their three losses the 42-point defeat at the hands of the Power was their closest.
The Demons would love to have such problems. After winning their past two games – by a combined total of six points – Melbourne are somehow only four points behind fourth-placed Fremantle. Though it might as well be eight, given that Melbourne’s percentage of 75.6 is the worst in the competition.
It doesn’t take much digging to see why the Demons have been so bad: They can’t score and they leak like a sieve defensively.
The midfield is still holding up its end of the bargain, thanks to the usual suspects: Max Gawn, Clayton Oliver and Angus Brayshaw. James Harmes is having a nice season too.
Melbourne are ranked fourth for inside-50 differential, getting about five more entries per game than their opponents, and in the same position for clearance differential at +36 on the year. They’re fifth for contested possession differential.
But those ball-winning and territory numbers aren’t doing them much good at either end of the ground.
The Dees are converting just 17.2 per cent of their forward-50s into goals, which is the worst rate of any side. At the other end, they’re conceding a goal on 26 per cent of their opponents’ entries, which is better than only North Melbourne.
There are excuses, particularly in the backline. Jake Lever is a star defender, and he’s yet to take the field this season as he mends from a knee reconstruction. Steven May was recruited as a defensive pillar and he’s managed just one game, which he didn’t get through.
May’s former Suns teammate Kade Kolodjashnij has gotten on the park just twice, and veteran Neville Jetta has played only four of eight matches. Michael Hibberd is now out of action with a busted collarbone courtesy of Suns skipper David Swallow. When it rains, it pours.
At the other end, nothing has clicked the way it did last season when the Demons were the league’s highest-scoring team.
After a sensational 2018 in which he booted 53 goals, Tom McDonald has managed just six total this year, and his three against the Suns last round were the first time this season he’s managed multiple goals.
As if things weren’t bad enough for Melbourne, their leading goal kicker, Jake Melksham, broke his foot against Gold Coast and will be sidelined for a while. Melksham is arguably his team’s most important player. Not only is he a goal kicker, but he’s the player who connects the dots between his side’s midfield dominance and their deep forwards.
Alas, he won’t be out there tonight, which puts added pressure on Christian Petracca.
Petracca has all the tools to perform the Melksham’s role – or just about any other – but has yet to show that he’s more than a moments player. 71 games into his career his output hasn’t been what Melbourne would have liked.
The Eagles are tough to get a handle on. Their two best wins – in which they demolished the Giants in Perth and comfortably beat the Magpies at the MCG – could convince you they are once again a team to be reckoned with.
However, spankings at the hands of Geelong, Brisbane and Port Adelaide would suggest this is another one of those Eagles teams good enough to qualify for finals without being a real premiership threat.
There is still a stack of talent in every part of the ground: Jeremy McGovern and Shannon Hurn down back; Josh Kennedy, Jack Darling and the underrated Jamie Cripps up forward; Andrew Gaff, Luke Shuey and Dom Sheed in the middle; Elliot Yeo wherever the hell he likes. But for whatever reason, it isn’t quite clicking yet.
Unfortunately, we probably won’t learn much about the Eagles tonight. What loomed as a mouth-watering match-up in March suddenly looks rather lopsided.
While the Demons have the midfield strength to get hands to the footy first and bang the ball forward regularly – West Coast are 16th for inside-50 differential – their attack will need to produce something special if they are to put a decent score on the board. With Melksham out, Jayden Hunt and rookie Jay Lockhart are the only Melbourne players to play at least four games and average a goal a game this season.
At the other end of the ground, Darling and Kennedy aren’t playing their best footy, but they could feast tonight on the Demons’ decimated defence. Heck, the Dees might struggle to find a match-up for Oscar Allen.
The last time these sides met in Perth, West Coast humiliated Melbourne in the preliminary final.
I don’t expect tonight to be quite that one-sided, but it’s in play.
I’m tipping West Coast by six goals.
That’s my Friday night forecast. What’s yours?