WHAT just happened?
Carlton has secured a preliminary final berth in the most dramatic of circumstances, kicking the go-ahead goal with a minute remaining to built Melbourne by two points.
For the second week running, Blake Acres was the match-winning hero, while Sam Walsh was again brilliant with 34 disposals and two goals.
The Blues will now head to the Gabba next weekend for their first preliminary final since 2000.
If it looks like a final and smells like a final, it probably is a final — that was very much the case from the moment the ball was bounced in the first semi final. Both teams attacked the contest with reckless abandon, which came as no surprise: Melbourne entered the game No.1 for contested possessions, with Carlton ranked third. Just as was the case the last time these sides played, it was a game which was dictated by swings of momentum, but unlike Round 22, it was the Dees who were on top. The home side recorded the first three goals with Carlton only mustering a few half chances, with Melbourne finding free targets on the counter attack. It wasn’t through a lack of effort for the Blues, who were putting their bodies on the line on every occasion, but they needed someone to settle things down. That came in the form of Tom De Koning, who juggled a mark and kicked truly from the left forward pocket to send the majority of the crowd into raptures: he wasn’t done, winning a free kick and converting from the opposite pocket moments later. It was the reward for effort the Blues needed, providing a shot of confidence as they went into the first change trailing by just nine points. Carlton’s ball-winners were at their physical best, with Adam Cerra, Sam Walsh (both nine disposals) and Patrick Cripps (seven disposals) all busy in the early going.
Carlton carried that momentum into the second term, hitting Melbourne between the eyes with some brute force that has become the trademark of the team’s game. Overwhelming the opposition with their tackle pressure (24-9 for the quarter), the Blues came at the Dees in waves, surging the ball forward and gaining more and more forward territory. Starting his first final after spending the majority of last weekend as sub, Jesse Motlop provided a moment of class, playing on after a mark inside 50 and slotting a banana from the pocket to continue the Blues’ run. Included for his first game since Round 17, Matthew Kennedy didn’t spend a moment playing in the midfield, instead tasked with manning Jake Lever. While Lever still had an influence in the air, Kennedy’s work at ground level was crucial as the Blues took the lead for the first time, assisting great mate Walsh for a goal: the Carlton co-vice captain was everywhere in the first half, adding that goal to 19 disposals and six tackles. Charlie Curnow soon gave the Blues their fifth consecutive goal, but Melbourne managed to stem the tide through Joel Smith: from there, Carlton’s backs were to the wall, but managed to hold on amidst a Melbourne barrage. Jacob Weitering was again supreme behind the ball (eight intercept possessions to half time), while Nic Newman replicated his last performance against Melbourne with 18 first-half possessions (11 in the second term).
It was a welcome sight for the Blues when Sam Docherty ran out ready for action after the half-time break, having come from the ground late in the second term with a shoulder injury. The quarter got off to the best possible start from a Carlton perspective, with Cripps finding Kennedy for the opening goal inside the first two minutes. As had been the trend of the game, a number of Blues needed to go on countless occasions, with the likes of Weitering, Mitch McGovern and Alex Cincotta dropping into the hole and putting their bodies on the line. The seas parted for Blake Acres to mark and goal at the same end as last week’s sealer, but from that point on, it was all Melbourne. Skill errors plagued both sides going forward, with the Blues seeing a number of chances go begging as the all-important next goal was elusive for both sides. Despite the best efforts of Carlton’s defensive group, Melbourne started to get on top, with goals to Bailey Fritsch and Kysaiah Pickett seeing the Dees take back the lead. It was a see-sawing affair, but the second half of the third term belonged to the red and blue, but missed chances and a strong defensive showing from the Blues keeping the deficit to one straight kick at the final change.
The last time these sides played, the Blues kicked a goal inside the opening minute to get the last quarter on their terms. This was no different, with the brilliant Walsh goaling on the run to round out a brilliant all-round performance. Minutes later, Kennedy found Owies who put the Blues in front once again — but nobody in their right mind at the MCG thought that was going to be it. True to form, the Dees rallied, hitting the front and keeping the game locked in their forward half as the Blues were rarely without respite. In a marathon quarter, hope looked to be fading for the Blues, but after a strong tackle from Charlie Curnow, Motlop kicked his second goal from the same pocket to get his team back within a kick. The game was well and truly on edge for the second week in a row, as Melbourne hit the post twice in a matter of minutes – as well as being thwarted by a rushed behind – to give the Blues a sniff. That’s all they needed, when Blake Acres – for the second week running – surged forward to mark and goal. One minute later, the siren blasted with the Blues two points ahead, creating pandemonium aplenty for the 96,412 in the stands as Carlton locked in its first preliminary final since 2000.
MELBOURNE 3.3 4.7 7.11 9.17 (71)
CARLTON 2.2 5.3 7.5 11.7 (73)
Carlton: Acres 2, De Koning 2, Motlop 2, Walsh 2, C.Curnow, Kennedy, Owies
Carlton: Walsh, Newman, Acres, Cripps, Weitering, Saad