As we approach Round 20 of the AFL season, only three teams have secured their place in the finals with the race for the remaining five places wide open. Collingwood appears to have claimed the minor premiership after their last gasp win over Port Adelaide last weekend, whilst the Power and Brisbane Lions are both seemingly secured into the top four. Whilst Melbourne are two wins clear of fifth place, a loss this weekend to a rampaging Richmond side could see them come back down to the chasing pack.
Elsewhere, teams from fifth to 12th place are all still in contention for a top eight spot as early as this weekend and this round once again has some important games which will shape the eight.
Collingwood vs Carlton on Friday night headlines the round, with Collingwood once again handed the chance to damage the Blues' finals hopes just like they did back in Round 23, 2022. Carlton have some key players back in and will be looking to make it six wins in a row and potentially launch themselves into the eight.
Western Bulldogs vs GWS looms as another important one, with both teams sitting on 10 wins in fifth and seventh place respectively, with percentage the only factor separating them. The winner of this game could find themselves in contention for fourth place, whilst the loser could find themselves out of the eight by the end of the round.
That takes us to Richmond vs Melbourne at the MCG on Sunday afternoon, with Richmond posing a threat to Melbourne's top-four hopes whilst also hoping to keep their own finals chances alive. Richmond have won three in a row under new coach Andrew McQualter and this clash is a must-win if they want to find themselves in September. A loss and they will more than likely miss finals this year.
It's a huge round of footy and these are the five players to focus on this weekend.
Murphy was subsequently awarded Collingwood's coaches MVP for Round 19 as well as four coaches' votes for his efforts down back.
Despite his performance being overshadowed by an incident with Willie Rioli and a subsequent unpaid free kick, Murphy finished the game with 11 disposals at 90 per cent efficiency, eight intercept possessions and a career-high 16 spoils.
Murphy's best game of 2022 came against Carlton in Round 11, when he emerged as an important player for Collingwood, having been elevated to replace the injured Jack Madgen. Murphy finished with 14 disposals, a career-high seven intercept marks and six spoils. Murphy will no doubt have the role of shutting down Charlie Curnow on Friday night alongside Darcy Moore and will have to build on last week's efforts to minimise Curnow's impact on the game.
Nathan Murphy achieved a career-high 16 one percenters on Saturday night!
Growing by the day, Murph receives his second Coaches MVP award in 2023 🏅 pic.twitter.com/Itl2l7Ks8f
— Collingwood FC (@CollingwoodFC) July 24, 2023
The GWS-Western Bulldogs rivalry has slowly intensified over the years, sparked by the narrow 2016 preliminary final, an incident with Toby Greene and Marcus Bontempelli in 2019 and another misconduct incident with Luke Dahlhaus in 2017. No doubt it will go up another notch this weekend, with both teams fighting to secure a spot in the top eight. Depending on the way other results go, the loser could find themselves as low as 10th by the end of the weekend.
GWS have won their last six games in a row, with Josh Kelly playing a monumental role in each of the wins - particularly when he kicked the match-winning goal against Melbourne. Kelly's season has seen him become part of the All-Australian conversation, averaging 27.1 disposals, 5.1 clearances and 4.9 tackles per game.
Kelly has also popped up to kick seven of his 12 goals for the season across the last six weeks, showing how valuable he can be across all areas of the ground. Back in Round 8 against the Bulldogs, he was instrumental for GWS despite their loss, accumulating 34 disposals, six tackles and five clearances.
If his performances the last few weeks are anything to go off, expect a big outing from Kelly in Ballarat.
Whilst Nick Daicos is the clear favourite for the Brownlow Medal this year, Tim Taranto would have to be up there, with afl.com.au's Brownlow Predictor currently estimating Taranto is in second spot after 19 rounds, and only three votes behind Daicos.
2023 would have to be a career-best season for Taranto so far, ranking elite in just about every statistical category and only having less than 108 AFL Fantasy points on two occasions (albeit they were still scores of 97 and 80). Taranto was the highest-ranked Richmond player in their come-from-behind win against Hawthorn last weekend, having 23 disposals, five marks, a game-high eight tackles to go with a handy three goals.
This weekend, the Tigers have a tough challenge in taking on Melbourne at the MCG and must win to stay in the running for a spot in the top eight.
Across his career, Melbourne has been one of the sides that Taranto consistently performs well against. When the two teams met back in Round 6, Taranto had 33 disposals, six marks, ten tackles and six clearances to finish as the best on ground.
A big performance this weekend could see the race for the Brownlow narrow to Daicos vs Taranto.
It's been a quiet three weeks for Jake Stringer, who has only kicked two goals and was held goalless in Essendon's horror loss to Geelong. Stringer managed only eight disposals and a goal against the Western Bulldogs last weekend and it has been suggested that he is potentially playing with an injury. Essendon coach Brad Scott knocked back these suggestions post game, telling reporters that "anyone who plays is fit. Every player at this stage of the season is carrying something and Jake's no different to that."
Last week's loss to the Western Bulldogs saw Essendon drop to 10th on the ladder, making it even tougher for them to play finals this season. A win against the Swans keeps their narrow finals hopes alive but a loss would all but rule them out of finals for season 2023. To reach the eight this weekend, Essendon need to win and hope that Geelong, Richmond and Carlton all lose their respective games.
Essendon are a better side when Stringer is fit and firing. His inability to impact the game last weekend saw Essendon kick only seven goals from 49 inside 50s, and only four goals after quarter time. Stringer will have to respond to his critics this weekend and lead from the front up forward if Essendon are to knock off the Swans.
Three losses in a row, including a narrow defeat to Melbourne last weekend, means Adelaide are on the brink of falling out of the finals race this year, but they can still challenge other sides for the remaining five rounds of the year.
There is no team that they would want to beat more than Port Adelaide in front of a packed Adelaide Oval in Showdown 54.
After a strong start to the year, Darcy Fogarty's last three weeks have been extremely quiet. With 28 goals for the season, Fogarty has only kicked two in the last three weeks. Fogarty was one of the lowest-ranked Crows players on the ground last weekend, finishing with nine disposals at 66.7 per cent efficiency and one goal.
Fogarty's last performance in a Showdown was impressive back in Round 23, 2022, despite Adelaide losing by 56 points. Fogarty kicked 3.2 from just seven disposals to lead the goalkicking for the Crows, as well as taking four marks.