It's been 16 weeks since the Western Bulldogs graced the MCG turf and since that night in which they defeated Collingwood on the opening Friday night of the season, the Dogs' plans of going back-to-back have not gone exactly to script.
After starting the season with five wins in the opening seven games, the Bulldogs have stumbled since returning from their bye, losing four of their past five games by an average losing margin of 42 points, with last week's 59-point loss to Adelaide one of the worst games under Doggies' coach Luke Beveridge by his own accord.
Sunday afternoon, the Western Bulldogs, on current form, find themselves surprisingly the favourites ahead of their clash against the 16th-placed Carlton Blues who will be seeing this game as a golden opportunity to break a three-game losing streak. Despite their horrendous form over the past five weeks, the Bulldogs are still an outside chance of playing finals, sitting a game and significant percentage behind the eighth-placed Sydney Swans.
Having said that, taking on Carlton at the Melbourne Cricket Ground will be no easy task. Despite losing their past three games, the Blues have been extremely competitive against top four aspirants in Melbourne and Adelaide over the past fortnight and have picked up telling wins over Greater Western Sydney and the Gold Coast at Metricon Stadium, and with a number of players playing career-best football under coach Brendan Bolton, the Blues could be in prime position to put the final nail in the coffin that is the Bulldogs' 2017 season.
At the start of the year, experts predicted that Carlton were going to struggle badly and that the Bulldogs were going to contend and be a good chance of going back-to-back, but the Blues are going so much better than everybody had originally thought as they continue to rebuild and there is no doubt an exciting future ahead. The Blues have had five players nominated for the league's Rising Star award so far this year.
The Bulldogs find themselves in the proverbial 'No Man's Land'. They have struggled to put in consistent four-quarter performances all season long and have looked nothing more than a shadow of the team that conquered all before them in the Finals Series last year. The Bulldogs are desperate for a win, will they get one against the Blues at the MCG? The Dogs have not beaten Carlton at the 'Home of Football' since 1992, with their last contest at the venue having taken place a decade ago, with Carlton taking home the points in a high-scoring encounter.
IN: Shane Biggs, Robert Murphy, Lewis Young, Bailey Williams
OUT: Matthew Boyd (Achilles), Easton Wood (Suspension), Clay Smith, Fletcher Roberts (Both Omitted)
B: Dale Morris, Zaine Cordy, Jason Johannisen
HB: Shane Biggs, Lewis Young, Matthew Suckling
C: Lachie Hunter, Mitch Wallis, Robert Murphy
HF: Toby McLean, Jake Stringer, Luke Dahlhaus
F: Bailey Dale, Jack Redpath, Liam Picken
FOL: Jordan Roughead, Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae
INT: Tom Liberatore, Mitch Honeychurch, Bailey Williams, Caleb Daniel
EMG: Fletcher Roberts, Declan Hamilton, Tory Dickson
Following their loss in Adelaide to the Crows, Luke Beveridge has made four changes with two of those being forced outs, with veteran defenders Matthew Boyd and Easton Wood sitting this one out, with Boyd missing with an achilles complaint and Wood facing a one-match ban after it was alleged that Wood struck Mitch McGovern in the ribs, however the footage revealed that there was little to nothing in it, causing a lot of outrage from the Bulldog supporters. Clay Smith and Fletcher Roberts have been dropped from the side after both men were quiet last Friday night.
Travis Cloke and Tory Dickson haven't done enough to get recalls after both men kicked three goals in the VFL last week, however, the Western Bulldogs will welcome back their captain in Robert Murphy after he sat out last week with a minor hamstring injury, and they also welcome back premiership player Shane Biggs after he missed last Friday's game with a calf complaint and second-year player Bailey Williams will play his sixth game of the season after he had 29 disposals in the VFL last weekend, with young key defender Lewis Young rounding out the inclusions as he makes his debut Sunday.
Young is currently the youngest AFL player on any roster, turning 19 in late December and scraped into eligibility for last year's AFL draft by just 11 days, taken by the Bulldogs with the 49th pick. Young's past month for Footscray has been terrific, which culminated in a 24 disposal, 11 mark performance in defence against Sandringham last weekend.
IN: Ciaran Byrne, Dylan Buckley, Blaine Boekhorst, Nick Graham, Alex Silvagni
OUT: Patrick Cripps (Leg), Simon White (Knee), David Cunningham (Hip) Harrison Macreadie. Ciaran Sheehan (Both Omitted)
B: Ciaran Byrne, Liam Jones, Lachie Plowman
HB: Sam Docherty, Jacob Weitering, Dale Thomas
C: Kade Simpson, Bryce Gibbs, Jed Lamb
HF: Sam Kerridge, Charlie Curnow, Matthew Wright
F: Sam Petrevski-Seton, Levi Casboult, Jack Silvagni
FOL: Matthew Kreuzer, Marc Murphy, Zac Fisher
INT: Dylan Buckley, Blaine Boekhorst, Nick Graham, Alex Silvagni
EMG: Ciaran Sheehan, Liam Sumner, Harrison Macreadie
Carlton have made five changes to the side that went in against Melbourne last Sunday afternoon, but none of the outs will hurt more than the injury to emerging star Patrick Cripps who broke his fibula in the second quarter of the game last week and effectively ending his season. Cripps has averaged 24 disposals, seven clearances and six tackles per game this season despite playing with broken ribs and a broken jaw which is an incredible effort and a testament to his toughness.
Versatile Blue Simon White injured his knee in the same game and will sit this game out, yet to be seen whether or not he's played his last game of 2017, whilst a hip complaint has ruled out promising Blue David Cunningham, whilst Harrison Macreadie and Ciaran Sheehan have both been dropped. Carlton have recalled Ciaran Byrne, Dylan Buckley, Blaine Boekhorst, Nick Graham and Alex Silvagni.
Recent History (Past 10 Meetings)
Round 4, 2016 - Etihad Stadium: Carlton 7.7.49 def by Western Bulldogs 13.7.85
Round 14, 2015 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 9.10.64 def Carlton 7.11.53
Round 5, 2014 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 13.13.91 def by Carlton 18.11.119
Round 20, 2013 - Etihad Stadium: Carlton 13.11.89 def by Western Bulldogs 16.11.117
Round 17, 2012 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 12.12.84 def by Carlton 16.6.102
Round 16, 2011 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 14.12.96 def Carlton 9.15.69
Round 15, 2010 - Etihad Stadium: Carlton 8.10.58 def by Western Bulldogs 20.6.126
Round 5, 2009 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 13.12.90 def by Carlton 21.7.133
Round 17, 2008 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 15.8.98 def by Carlton 18.18.126
Round 10, 2007 - MCG: Carlton 21.12.138 def Western Bulldogs 19.14.128
Players To Watch
In just three of the four finals the Western Bulldogs played last year, Liam Picken kicked eight goals. So far in 2017, Picken has only registered 11 goals in 15 games and for someone that played such a pivotal role in the Bulldogs' fairytale premiership last year, it simply isn't good enough. Last Friday night he got no where near the footy, only registering 14 disposals. With the exception of a few games, he's been very disappointing in terms of impact on the scoreboard, I'd like to see him play as a defensive forward, shutting down someone like an in-form Sam Docherty.
Since returning from the bye, Toby McLean has probably been one of the rare Bulldog players that is improving from 2016, playing more midfield than forward, McLean is averaging over 22 disposals and six tackles a match from his past five games and his performance against the Crows last Friday night was a career-night for him and hopefully a step forward in his development. The question yet remains as to whether or not he can back it up with another good performance this week.
This is perhaps one of my favourite stories of 2017. Who would've guessed at the start of the year that this former Bulldog would be playing career-best football for Carlton when his career was virtually gone for all money just two months ago? A player who has spent most of his career as a forward, a move in defence midway through 2017 has rejuvenated the much-maligned Jones as he prepares to battle against his old side for the first time since being traded to the Blues. In these past five weeks, Jones has beaten the likes of Jon Patton, Tom Lynch, Taylor Walker and just recently Jesse Hogan who made his return to footy last week. The stage is set for a big game.
Carlton rely on a kicking game and one man who has established himself as one of the more elite kicks in the game is Sam Docherty who is having a stellar year as a half-back. On top of averaging a career-high 29 disposals and 10 marks alongside five rebound 50s per game, Docherty leads the league in kicks, averaging 22 kicks per game which is unsurprisingly, another career-high. If the Dogs can limit his influence, then they're a big chance of winning on Sunday.
I'm excited for this game for a lot of reasons. I can't wait to see what Lewis Young can do in his first game in the big leagues - I don't expect much from the kid but his progression in the seconds has been promising. I'd also love to see how Carlton's young boys such as Zac Fisher, Sam Petrevski-Seton and Charlie Curnow go against the reigning premiers and can Liam Jones continue to silence his doubters with another stunning performance in defence?
Given the recent form of both sides, It'd be easy to go against the Bulldogs and tip Carlton. But the Bulldogs were questioned by Luke Beveridge at the end of their match last week about the lack of hunger and appetite for the ball and have been challenged by the supporters that watch their beloved side get shown up week in and week out, but I expect them to come out fired up for this game, whether or not they can put in a consistent performance remains to be seen.
The Bulldogs haven't won three in a row against the Blues since 2004-06, but I'm tipping the Bulldogs to win this game, they simply need to respond after last week's humiliating second half, but I think it has the makings to be a very scrappy game between the best tackling team in the competition - that being the Western Bulldogs - and a young Carlton team, who pride themselves on giving it a go as they continue to build an exciting future. The loss of Cripps hurts Carlton a lot, as I think whoever comes out on top in the contested ball will very much decide this one.
Western Bulldogs By 16 Points