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Who gets on top at the MCG?

Sydney Swans lose to Western Bulldogs players celebrate
Who gets on top at the MCG?
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Who should neutrals barrack for?
We're mere hours away from the AFL grand final now, where it's the hope that kills you before Hawthorn streak away before half-time. Oh, right. That's not the case this year. It's the Swans and the Dogs battling for their first premierships since 2012 and 1961 respectively. It was only 11 years ago that Sydney broke a 72-year drought, and now the Bulldogs have their chance to end 62 long years without a flag.

The two clubs combine for almost 100,000 members, and the bandwagons are quickly filling up. But who should the neutral footy fan cheer on Saturday? Supporters of certain rival clubs will have no trouble choosing the Dogs – we're thinking Collingwood, Hawthorn, even though the Bulldogs ended the Hawks' run, and Geelong. Melbourne would be left with the longest premiership drought if the Dogs win, with 52 years, followed by St Kilda with 54. Is that enough for Demons and Saints supporters to cheer on the Swans? Given the Bulldogs have overtaken both in the rebuild stakes, we'd have to suggest it is.

Regardless of your own affiliations, both teams are very easy to support. The Dogs have a brilliant mix of young stars playing hard, skilful footy and veterans who, when coach Luke Beveridge was appointed for the 2015 season, were sticking around for the love of the game. Sydney boast one of the game's great players in Buddy Franklin, while it's always a privilege to watch what Kieren Jack and Isaac Heeney can do with the ball in hand. Really, after a couple of years hoping someone, anyone, can topple Hawthorn, it'll be a refreshing result either way.

Who gets on top?
Since being ripped to shreds by GWS in the qualifying final, the Swans haven't slipped up once. Two seven-goal opening quarters led to six-goal victories over Adelaide and Geelong, and Sydney's accuracy in front of goal held up throughout as they ended the games with 18.10 and 15.7 on the board. The Swans have been successful in giving up more possession and territory to their opponents, which plays into their hands for the ability to force turnovers, give up few or poor-quality shots and get the ball down the field for better opportunities at goal themselves.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, play the opposite way. They use numbers to win the ball out of stoppages – more than any other team at 6.5 clearances more than the opposition per game this season – then press up to defend only half the ground and force turnovers in key areas. One factor out of this is that the Dogs can make themselves take tougher shots at goal, so there is the potential for the team to waste opportunities. A young forward line made up of converted midfielders no doubt comes into play there.

It remains to be seen that Sydney and the Bulldogs will go into this game with the same methods – the Dogs especially might switch it up a little to avoid walking into a trap – but if it does play out this way the Bulldogs will need to make optimal decisions under immense pressure. The Swans do go into the grand final as favourites, with a superb backline, elite running on the inside and out on the wings and a forward line that can function better than most with Franklin running the show. The game itself, however, rests on the fight the Dogs show in setting the game up for themselves. We don't think it's an impossible feat for them to make it happen, but our tip is Sydney in a close one with no more than three goals in it.

Will the selections backfire?
The Bulldogs' decision to leave Lin Jong and Matthew Suckling out of their team means the biggest injury concerns remain Swans duo Callum Mills (hamstring) and Jarrad McVeigh (calf). Dogs ruckman Jordan Roughead's eye problem is not a lingering issue and should be fine throughout the game. Mills must be the biggest concern, given a hamstring could pull at any moment regardless of how much he has rested the last couple of weeks. Still, this is a grand final and the risk is worth taking. Mills can't be replaced at the selection table, having shown throughout the year that he's a rare player when it comes to his mix of marking and ball use, so backing the medical staff and making the most of his talents makes sense. Nobody can begrudge McVeigh his spot in the team, though we can only assume he'll be playing through a decent amount of pain.

While the Dogs haven't made any changes – the first time since the same 22 played the opening two rounds of the year – it doesn't mean there are no question marks. Much like how they play with a mid-sized forward line around Tom Boyd (or a resting Jordan Roughead), the Swans don't necessarily rely on multiple tall players sitting deep inside 50. Lance Franklin moves up the ground, while Kurt Tippett and Sam Naismith rotate. Xavier Richards, at 195 centimetres and a defender by trade, is the tallest player guaranteed to be in and around the arc. The Bulldogs' coaching box will now have some shuffling to do, with Fletcher Roberts, Joel Hamling, Dale Morris and Easton Wood the four players capable of playing on talls. There is a danger that Roberts or Hamling could get caught out chasing a smaller opponent, and they will need well-timed help to ensure that is kept to a minimum. That, however, is more favourable than a sore Suckling being caught out.

What did you make of round 16? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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