The finals have come early for both Melbourne and Collingwood on Friday night, with their ladder positions meaning that if the finals were to begin this weekend, they’d be contesting a qualifying final at the MCG.
Going into Round 21, the Dees and Pies sit in second and third place on the ladder respectively, with the latter having won their past ten matches in a row to prove themselves as the real deal under rookie coach Craig McRae.
Last Saturday afternoon the Pies survived yet another close match, edging out Port Adelaide by a goal at the MCG to shuffle closer to securing a double chance for the third time in five years.
It was their fifth straight win by a single-figure margin. They’ve come back from 26 points down to defeat North Melbourne by seven, survived a scare from the Crows to win by five and had Jamie Elliott kick the matchwinning goal against Essendon in Round 19.
The win over the Bombers very nearly didn’t happen, as Harrison Jones had the chance to complete what would’ve been an epic comeback victory for his side in the final minute only to hit the post, after which the Pies produced the passage of play culminating in Elliott’s winner.
McRae’s efforts in lifting the Pies back into the finals are to be commended given the mess predecessor Nathan Buckley left behind, with many predicting at the start of the year the club would even fall as far as winning the wooden spoon for the first time since 1999.
There was also the overseas drama involving forward Jordan De Goey, who sat out their Round 15 clash against GWS in order to clear his head.
Their impressive form has many declaring them genuine flag contenders, and there is the chance that they could better their 2018 effort in which they fell just short of a record-equaling 16th premiership when they lost to the West Coast Eagles by just five points in the grand final.
They will fancy their chances of an 11th-straight win when they come up against the Dees, who appear to have overcome a rough mid-season patch during which they lost five of nine matches, including three in a row at the MCG in Rounds 11 to 13.
For the second time this season Simon Goodwin’s men headed west, back to the scene of their premiership triumph last year, and again returned east with the points courtesy of a 46-point win over a disappointing Fremantle side last Friday night.
There had been some questions raised about their desire to defend their flag, especially with the lure of doing so in front of their fans at the MCG, after a form slump that had seen them lose to the Dockers, Pies, Sydney Swans, Geelong Cats and Western Bulldogs.
There is also speculation surrounding forward Luke Jackson, who has been linked with a return home at the end of the season. If he does leave the club, it would leave a hole in the Melbourne forward line.
But they could be starting to return to top form with the finals just a month away. This Friday night’s clash against the Pies is the first of back-to-back home matches against huge Victorian oppositions before they wrap up with a trip to the Gabba to face the Brisbane Lions.
It will also be the first time the two sides meet on a Friday night since 2007, at which point the Dees were about to slide into a decade-long oblivion while the Pies were four years removed from back-to-back grand final losses to the Lions.
For the Dees a victory will be paramount to ramping up the pressure on the top-placed Geelong Cats, who have a very soft run home and are poised to claim the minor premiership for the second time in four years.
The stakes are higher for the Pies, as they would have the chance to move up to second on the ladder but would have to pray for an unlikely Cats form slump and also win their final two matches to finish on top for the first time since 2011.
They still have to play the Sydney Swans next weekend in a match that could well decide which of them finishes higher on the ladder, before a final-round MCG blockbuster against the Blues in the penultimate match of the regular season.
What Craig McRae’s men have achieved this year has certainly not gone unnoticed, but they could emerge as the team to watch in September should they complete the double over the Dees this season, which would be a first since 2009.
As for the Dees, it’s crunch time as their premiership defence starts to ramp up a notch or two.