By JOHN VAN KLAVEREN
IMITATION is the sincerest form of flattery, the adage says, so the Cats must be flattered to be playing Essendon in the game of the round on Friday night.
It’s been billed as the apprentices taking on the masters, with a lot of Geelongification about the Bombers this season.
Not only did Essendon steal one of the engineers of Geelong’s flag winning run in Mark Thompson, it also took Brendan McCartney, who subsequently joined senior coaching ranks with the Western Bulldogs.
McCartney himself has raided the Cattery extensively as he seeks to remake the Bulldogs in the Cats’ image.
Essendon’s attacking flair has now been matched with dour defence, flying the Bombers into the lead in most statistical markers so far this season.
The averages per game for the two are almost mirror images, with Essendon just shading Geelong in a few categories.
But that has more to do with the numbers-boosting teams Essendon has played, including Melbourne, St Kilda and Greater Western Sydney.
The Bombers are only unbeaten because Fremantle managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in round three.
James Hird’s men pulled off a resounding win over Collingwood in the Anzac Day match but the Pies are not the same team this season despite holding onto the lower reaches of the top eight.
Essendon must also overcome history, with only a four-point victory against Geelong to show for the past seven meetings.
Cats coach Chris Scott conceded Essendon had played the better football this season.
“More important is us improving our game. I don’t think we’ve got to our optimal level this season and this is another chance against really good opposition to be a bit more consistent,” he said this week.
“We really enjoy playing against the best teams and at the moment we think Essendon are the best team, so these are the kind of games good players live for.
“Short of playing finals footy, you crave big games against the best opposition and hopefully that brings out our best.”
Hird and his coaching brigade have made great use of the cultivated Bombers-against-the-world mentality as the team faces lengthy drug-related investigations.
It’s similar to the pressure Geelong’s players, seasoned ’though they are, face in ensuring their premiership hunger remains sharp.
But a stronger focus seems apparent within the team this year compared to last, clearly the reason for its 6-0 start.
It’s from that focus that a Geelong victory must derive on Friday night.
The outcome of the game could also be decided by Essendon selection, as its match committee is faced with bringing in up to six players who have missed significant weeks recently.
However, many of them are talls, potentially leaving Geelong a little short in the air.
Defender Andrew Mackie conceded earlier in the week that Essendon’s tall forwards could stretch the Cats with Jared Rivers injured.
But Scott appeared to slate Mackie for a key defensive role against the Bombers.
“We’d like Jared in the team but Andrew Mackie is not a small defender. He’s 194 centimetres – he’s just being a bit modest there.
“But their tall forwards are taller than ours and they have two rucks and tall defenders. They will be tall and strong in the air and we are going to have to try to counter that and exploit any advantage we might have on the ground.”