Is Carlton ready to put together a fairy tale by September?

Every year we wonder if a team can win the Premier League outside of the top four and almost every year we are denied that. In this century, the 2016 Western Bulldogs are still the only team to make it to the end.

Most of the time it’s just common sense. For the fifth-place team to win the flag, they must beat three teams that have outperformed them over a six-month period for three consecutive weeks. It’s unlikely.

However, the bye before the final at least equalized the chances. Since the Dogs in 2016, two other teams have reached the Grand Finals from outside the top four: GWS in 2019 and the Dogs again in 2021. All four top teams played in the Prefinals twice: in 2017 and 2020, suspended by COVID- 19

Based on this seven-year trend, one of the top four teams is more likely to be eliminated in straight sets and one of the teams ranked 5-8 to make at least the bottom four.

When it comes to hosting a fairytale run this year, Carlton has the edge.

Patrick Cripps celebrates.

Patrick Cripps. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Sydney has won six of the last seven final rounds but has rarely beaten a significant opponent, often just over the finish line. GWS’ form has been very solid in the second half of the year but they are likely lacking in quality and may be overly dependent on Toby Greene in crucial moments. St Kilda isn’t here yet, but its time is coming.

That leaves Carlton.

The all-important midfield is piling up – Brownlow medalist Patrick Cripps, rising star Sam Walsh, Adam Cerra as the wonderful third wheel and George Hewett and Matt Kennedy are superb and hardworking when fit. Blake Acres arguably had his best year as a winger in his debut season with the Blues.

Carlton’s defense holds up, led by Jacob Weitering, who is back on form. Since turning their season in Round 14, the Blues have averaged 67 points per game against them. Mitch McGovern will play 20 games in a season for the first time since his debut in 2016, which also helps behind the ball, while Adam Saad and Nic Newman demonstrated a devastating running combination.

Obviously any defense needs the rest of the field working well to prevent the ball from penetrating quickly and easily and the pressure on Carlton has certainly increased in the second half of the year.

Up front, the Blues have what many would say is the best player in the competition in Charlie Curnow. There’s little he can’t do, and with 27.4 shots on goal from his last 31, his football boots are all set for September.

It has to be said that Harry McKay is a cause for concern. The horrible missed goals, the lack of calm and panic when he loses confidence in front of the big post and the debilitating effect it has on the team.

Harry McKay of the Blues celebrates a goal.

Harry McKay. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

In fact, that year with McKay by his side, Carlton had less than a 50% win rate, and when he wasn’t there, a 100% win rate. Additionally, the Blues defeated Port Adelaide, Collingwood and Melbourne when he was away – their top three wins.

The other problem Carlton has is a big one – the lack of Finals experience. Teams simply don’t win the Premiership title as a playgroup the first time they reach the final. Adelaide in 1997 is probably the closest in ‘recent’ history, but even then a group of players played two finals in 1993.

Geelong in 2007, Richmond in 2017 and Melbourne in 2021 won the flag after missing out on the finals the previous year, and the Bulldogs seemingly came out of nowhere in 2016. But the Cats and Tigers had made it to the finals in Melbourne in 2004-05 and 2013-15 respectively and had made it to the prelims in 2018, while the Dogs had at least reached the finals in 2015 as well.

The Blues are left empty-handed, especially when it comes to their biggest names and key players.

Cripps, Docherty, Cerra, Walsh, Weitering, Curnow and McKay have yet to play a final. Ditto for many of the support crew who have only previously known a Carlton sweater. Some have played one or two, like Acres, Newman and Saad.

Every final played will be a valuable experience, but it will feel like a wasted season if the Blues are eliminated in the first week. They should have gained experience last year but screwed up late in the play. The further they go this September the better they can get and this is a chance for them to go all the way – if they are like a horse that improves in the second, third and fourth rounds of a prep.

The stage is of course set for a big duel in week two if Carlton can get the best out of Sydney. They’re playing Collingwood or Melbourne – two teams they’ve already beaten and the very two teams that cost them a place in the finals last year in the most excruciating circumstances.

It is now up to the blues to make their own history. Is Carlton ready to put together a fairy tale by September?

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