Melbourne's third consecutive loss – a thrilling two-point defeat at the hands of a rejuvenated St Kilda at the MCG on Sunday – has flung the Demons into a scrap for a spot in the finals.
Just weeks ago, it was hard to see the Demons falling to this position. They won six games in a row between rounds six and 11 to shoot them into top four contention but after this performance in round 15, the optimism of that strong run looks a world away for Simon Goodwin's side.
Jade Gresham celebrates on of his four goals.
Late goals to Bailey Fritsch, Jesse Hogan and Jordan Lewis got the Demons to within two points with 30 seconds left in the game, but it was too little too late. The Dees won the quarter seven goals to four, but fell just short where it counted.
St Kilda were admittedly fantastic in their best performance of the year. Their second consecutive win and their third of the season was credit to a fearless brand of football that saw them run Melbourne off their feet, especially in a scintillating third term.
It was frightening, for Demons fans, how many times the Saints were able to run the ball through the midfield, out the back and into space. Hunter Clark, Jade Gresham, Jack Billings, Shane Savage and Jack Sinclair led the way in that respect, with Jack Steele and David Armitage performing well at the coal face in spite of Max Gawn's ruck dominance over Billy Longer, who competed admirably.
Tim Membrey finished off that work well in the forward 50 by kicking four goals while Gresham was influential everywhere with four of his own and a hand in a number of others.
The Saints simply ran harder to overlap and carry the ball quickly forward, while the Demons looked to rely on their inside midfield strength too heavily, and lacked either the ability, desire or game plan to hurt St Kilda with similar outside run. Angus Brayshaw was the only Melbourne player who seemed able to match inside grit and outside poise to a damaging standard for long enough.
The Demons kicked the first three goals of the game, however, with the Saints rarely advancing past the halfway point of the ground. Melbourne were expertly setting a trap, letting the Saints out of the 50 but then pouncing across half-forward. Two goals to Brayshaw, his first a fine show of strength and poise, set the tone, but the Saints hit back with four of their own. The best of those was thanks to 2017 first-round draft pick Clark, who burst forward and found Billings with a clever chip kick. Billings missed but was dumped after the tackle and the downfield advantage was converted by Gresham, whose burn off half-back at a centre clearance created the previous Saints goal, a mark and set shot by Membrey.
Paddy McCartin pulls away from Michael Hibberd.
Melbourne kicked the first goal of the second quarter but let the Saints away again. St Kilda did a brilliant job at isolating Melbourne's defenders. Their forwards tried to make sure they weren't too close to each other, meaning Melbourne's defenders couldn't peel off their opponents to create overloads. That worked well for Steele who capitalised from some quick ball movement to take the Saints' lead to 15 points. The Demons got their noses back in front with three of their own but St Kilda kicked four of five goals to end the quarter.
The Demons were frustrating, shooting themselves in the foot. They conceded four of seven Saints second quarter goals due to poor discipline. Two – one each to Savage and Jack Newnes – came because Melbourne allowed them a free run to receive handpasses on the 50 and then shoot for goal after their teammates had marked, and the other two were due to 50m penalties. Jake Melksham gave one away for running into the protected zone while Armitage kicked a goal due to a 50m penalty against Clayton Oliver, who dangerously dumped an opponent in a tackle after the umpire had whistled for a separate free kick.
After a tighter third quarter where the Saints were able to extend their lead to just below four straight kicks, the Demons got within nine points with six minutes left in the final term, however a goal to youngster Josh Battle and one to Jack Steven gave them just enough space to hold the Demons off.
ST KILDA 4.3 11.6 14.10 18.11 (119)
MELBOURNE 4.2 9.3 11.6 18.9 (117)
GOALS: St Kilda: J Gresham 4 T Membrey 4 P McCartin 2 D Armitage H Clark J Battle J Billings J Newnes J Steele J Steven S Savage. Melbourne: B Fritsch 4 J Harmes 3 J Hogan 3 A Brayshaw 2 A Neal-Bullen C Petracca D Tyson J Lewis J Melksham T McDonald.
BEST: St Kilda: Gresham, Membrey, Sinclair, Savage, Geary, Carlisle, Billings, Armitage, Steele
Melbourne: Gawn, Brayshaw, Fritsch, Harmes, Jones, Oliver, Viney
UMPIRES: Troy Pannell, Curtis Deboy, Hayden Gavine.
J Gresham 8
M Gawn 8
T Membrey 7
J Sinclair 7
J Billings 7
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