WHERE AND WHEN: Optus Stadium, Thursday June 20, 6.10pm (AWST)
HISTORY: The Bombers have claimed the points in three of the last five meetings between these two teams, including a surprise 28-point win at Optus Stadium in round 14 last season.
SUMMARY: The loss to Sydney prior to the bye was West Coast’s fourth by at least seven goals. While the gap between the Eagles’ best and worst would be of concern for coach Adam Simpson, a win on Thursday night would see the reigning premier reclaim a one-win buffer inside the top four. Essendon, meanwhile, have breathed life into their season with two straight wins. However, those victories have come against lower-ranked teams in Carlton and Hawthorn. If John Worsfold’s men can get the job done against the competition’s benchmark, it will signal to the rest of the League that the Bombers are a genuine finals contender.
KEY PLAYERS: Luke Shuey (West Coast)
Shuey (24 possessions) won a decent amount of the football in the loss to the Swans, but he wasn’t at his penetrating best and will be keen to rebound with a strong showing in this clash. The Norm Smith medallist’s ability to win the football at the coalface and break the lines makes him arguably West Coast’s most influential midfielder. Expect Shuey to come in for some close attention from Dylan Clarke who has put the clamps on star on-ballers Patrick Cripps and Jaeger O’Meara in Essendon’s past two games.
Orazio Fantasia (Essendon)
With Jake Stringer sidelined by a leg injury, Fantasia’s ability to hit the scoreboard takes on even greater importance. The dynamic 23-year-old doesn’t need a lot of the football to have a major impact, as evidenced by his four-goal effort from just 11 disposals against Sydney in round eight. As such, his direct opponent in Brad Sheppard will need to be switched on defensively for the full four quarters. If Sheppard can keep Fantasia under wraps, the Bombers will struggle to kick a winning score.
Josh Kennedy (West Coast)
Kennedy (27 goals) and partner in crime Jack Darling (26) were both out of action when Essendon stunned the Eagles on their home deck almost 12 months to the day. In that game, the home team won the inside 50 count 59 to 45. As good a defender as Michael Hurley is, even he would struggle to contain Kennedy if West Coast get that sort of supply in this one. Not only is Hurley an elite defender, he is also capable of hurting his opponent on the rebound with the 29-year-old ranked fourth in the AFL for rebound 50s per game. With this in mind, Kennedy will need to bring his A-game in terms of forward defensive pressure to ensure that Hurley doesn’t initiate Essendon’s attacking forays.
Zach Merrett (Essendon)
Merrett continued his fine season with 28 possessions, one goal and two goal assists against the Hawks. What makes the 23-year-old such an important part of the Essendon midfield setup is that not only does he win a stack of the football, he rarely wasted a possession having operated at a disposal efficiency rating of 71.7 per cent. Expect Mark Hutchings to make it his mission to ensure that Merrett’s impact on the contest is minimal.
PREDICTION: Essendon will head into this clash fancying their chances of coming away with the four points, but with their forward half depleted by injury it’s hard to see how they will manufacture enough goals to be in front on the scoreboard when the final siren sounds. Eagles by 19 points.