Overshadowed by the AFL season being thrown into chaos, Friday night’s Western Bulldogs-Melbourne clash nevertheless shapes as a hot contest between the competition’s top two sides.
The Marvel Stadium fixture almost had to be rescheduled because of Victoria’s latest COVID-19 outbreak, with players and staff from both sides forced to be tested and isolate at different stages of the week.
The uncertainty has added another hurdle in a tight schedule, with both teams coming off six-day breaks.
The Bulldogs have been bolstered for the top-of-the-ladder showdown by the return of Tim English to partner Jordon Sweet in the ruck, after spending four weeks on the sidelines with concussion symptoms.
Patrick Lipinksi is back from a quad injury to bolster a midfield that has lost Adam Treloar (ankle) for at least six weeks, while Riley Garcia will make his debut.
Melbourne have regained Christian Salem (soreness) after a week out, replacing Neville Jetta.
The Demons were quick to claim underdog status after their shock loss to Adelaide last week, having also witnessed the Bulldogs’ 111-point dismantling of St Kilda.
The first-placed Dogs are ranked No.1 in the competition in scores for and against, while the Dees are ranked fifth and second respectively.
Both sides boast impressive 9-1 records, two wins clear of the chasing pack.
“They’re the benchmark and we’re looking forward to taking it up to them,” Melbourne defender Jake Lever said.
Bulldogs star Marcus Bontempelli is equally wary of the Demons’ prowess as he leads a deep midfield unit into battle with the likes of Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver.
The Dogs’ skipper also noted gun forwards Aaron Naughton and Josh Bruce will have their work cut out against possible All-Australian duo Lever and Steven May, with English and Sweet to help out in attack.
“They’ve been an incredibly strong side all season and only really went down in that recent one (against Adelaide) by one point, so we might be evenly pegged,” Bontempelli said.
“They’ve got a number of threats all across the ground but particularly down back with Jake and Steven.
“We got a look at that when we played them (in pre-season) and they both had quite influential games in that game.
“We’ll look at an opportunity to stretch them defensively but they’ve got so many different elements of their game that we’ll have to look to try and quell.”
The Victorian state government’s snap lockdown means fans won’t be allowed to attend Friday night’s game.
The empty stands will result in a financial hit for the Bulldogs, who had expected a windfall from a fixture that was set to have gone close to a sell-out.
“It’s a huge disappointment to the Bulldogs – the home club – to both clubs who are going to participate and to our supporters,” AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan said.