AFL Finals Carlton Blues have a free hit with no pressure over Melbourne Demons

Jake MichaelsESPN Senior WriterSep 13, 2023, 06:12 AM5 Minute Read

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YOU KNOW THE old proverb which goes something along the lines of fearing a man who has nothing to lose? Sure you do. Well, that man, or men, might as well be the 23 Carlton players who suit up and run out onto the MCG this Friday night for a do-or-die semifinal against Melbourne.

The Blues have already earned a check mark on the season. The last three months, culminating in an emotionally charged, drought-breaking finals win over Sydney, has built up enough goodwill with the loyal fanbase to essentially offer them a free hit against the Demons — a side which has now become burdened by expectation.

It’s really a staggering position Carlton finds itself in. You only need to rewind 12 weeks to a time when the Blues sat 15th on the ladder, following an insipid 34-point loss to arch-rival Essendon. They had mustered just a solitary win from their past nine games and looked as listless as any side in the competition not named West Coast or North Melbourne.

The idea of finals football had quickly become a pipe dream. Not only that, but a 2024 season coached entirely by Michael Voss also begun looking increasingly unlikely, regardless of club president Luke Sayers’ mid-year public backing in a scrambling effort to release the pressure gauge.

The Blues have exceeded the expectations of many already in 2023.Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images

The Blues never had an issue winning the ball, ranking top three for contested possession and clearance, but too often players looked confused as to what to do with it. That led to the club’s greatest issue: a lack of scoring, which had dried up to worryingly low levels. Through 13 weeks, Carlton ranked 16th for points scored, 15th for points scored from turnover, and 15th for points scored from stoppage. In the nine games leading up to and including that loss to the Bombers, Carlton had managed to exceed a score of 63 points just twice — one of those coming against the dire Eagles — and were held to eight goals or fewer on six occasions. Not great from a side employing the two most recent Coleman Medal winners.

A run of eight losses in nine weeks looked like becoming nine losses in 10 weeks when the Suns travelled to the MCG in Round 14 and quickly established a 16-1 lead. But then something changed.

Out of nowhere, Carlton produced a nine-goal second quarter barrage to get the game back on their terms. At long last, some offensive potency. It may not have been the most sustainable form of scoring, with six of those goals coming courtesy of centre bounce clearances — the most any team has managed in any quarter this season — but finally there was some reward for effort. Finally, the confidence of the playing group lifted.

The Blues ended up blowing out Gold Coast by 59 points and launching a stunning nine-game win streak. It was the first time in the history of the sport a club had achieved the feat immediately following a six-game losing run. The only loss since mid-June was against the Giants in Round 24, when Adam Kingsley’s side was playing for a spot in September and the Blues had already secured a home final.

Since that pivotal win over the Suns, the catalyst behind one of the more remarkable mid-season turnarounds in league history, the Blues have rocketed to first for both total points scored and points from stoppage. They continue to set the benchmark for their contested possession and clearance work, and there’s also been a noticeable rise in pressure, jumping from 14th in the first 13 weeks to third-best since the bye.

Most impressively, the Blues turned their fortunes around while managing injuries to several key players. Midfield heartbeats Sam Walsh and Adam Cerra both suffered hamstring injuries late in the year, key forward Harry McKay battled a knee issue, while Mitch McGovern, Matt Kennedy, Jack Silvagni, and Corey Durdin, among others, were also sidelined at various stages.

Matthew Cottrell has been a mainstay for the Blues.Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

No matter the result on Friday, or how the game unfolds, the future of Voss — at one stage this year the most under-the-pump coach in football — is secure. The long-term prospects of the club also seem as positive as at any point over the last decade. There’s minimal external expectation on Carlton, and that could spell trouble for the Demons.

The Blues have already caused recent stirring upset wins over premiership contenders Port Adelaide and Collingwood, as well as these Demons, as recently as last month. In each of those games Carlton started as the bookmakers’ outsider, a position they will once again assume for this clash. And if the elimination final crowd is any indicator, it could be the Blues who enjoy the majority of support on Friday night, despite Melbourne earning ‘home game’ honours.

There’s no doubt Voss will be hellbent on leading the Blues to the final four for the first time since 2000, but the expectation for them to achieve it just isn’t there — at least not in season 2023. The Blues have already managed to resurrect what was shaping as a disastrous year. Everything from here on out is a bonus.

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