Finally, season 2011 has delivered the grand final that supporters, media commentators and the general football public have been waiting for. Saturday afternoon, it will be the two best teams of the past five seasons battle it out for the 2011 flag.

The Magpies and Cats are no strangers when it comes to finals, and certainly when it comes to the two clubs crossing paths in September.

This time, they meet on the first Saturday in October.

The two clubs have met in the preliminary finals in 2007, 2009 and 2010, with the Cats winning the first two, and the Pies the most recent in 2010.

So far in 2011, they have lost a combined total of five matches, with both being the standout teams throughout the home and away rounds.

After qualifying in first and second position, the Pies and Cats earned a weeks rest before facing their respective preliminary final opponents, after defeating the Eagles and the Hawks respectively.

The Pies were the first to qualify for the big one, after a nail biting three point victory over a gallant and defiant Hawthorn.

The Pies trailed for most of the game, after the Hawks led at quarter time by a point. The Pies seemed destined to fall short of the grand final and a chance at back to back premierships. That was, until the Hawks began to squander several chances in front of goal.

The Pies, having kicked only five goals for the game needed to pull off one of their great comebacks to knock off the Hawks.

Enter their newly crowned Brownlow medallist, Dane Swan. He lit up the ‘G in the final term, and with Travis Cloke, Luke Ball and a cameo from Dale Thomas carried the Magpies to an unlikely, yet stirring victory and a place in the 2011 Grand Final.

The Cats had the easier of the preliminary finals, facing the West Coast Eagles who had travelled to Melbourne twice in three weeks.

The Cats were hot favourites and, certainly delivered, making light work of last season’s wooden spooners.

The Cats burst out of the blocks booting a major within the first two minutes of the game. And they didn’t look back.

Forwards Tom Hawkins and James Podsiadly who had been considered their weakness earlier in the season fired, and now have their team well placed to win their third premiership in five seasons.

It would appear that for the first time in this year, we have a new favourite for the 2011 flag.

The Cats are without doubt the in-form team, with the Magpies struggling with form and injury.

As of Tuesday morning, the Cats were classified as the favourites with the bookies, coming in from a $2.00 outsider.

The Magpies and their supporters, however, will not be phased by their underdog status. In fact, they welcome it.

Last time they met:
Geelong 8.17 (65) d Collingwood 9.8 (62)
Crowd: 81, 691

The Round 24 battle between the two grand finalists was a non-event. The Magpies and Cats had one eye firmly on next week, and once the Cats gained the ascendancy, the Pies did not offer any resistance. Thus, it is meaningless to analyse that game in an attempt to find a winner in Saturday’s decider.

Cast your minds back to Round 8, when the Pies and Cats met for the first time in season 2011.

It was a wet night in Melbourne, and the Magpies went into the game as favourites.

The Cats came out firing and dominated the opening term, but failed to convert their plethora of opportunities. They booted 2.9, and the Magpies were lucky to be anywhere near their rivals.

In his 100th game, Cats’ midfielder Joel Selwood was on fire early, with 10 opening term possessions, setting the tone for an outstanding night out, where he would be close to best on ground.

The Magpies seized their opportunities in front of goal, booting 3.2 to one behind in the second quarter. It was not all easy for the Pies, however, as they found it extremely difficult to find time and space in their defensive half.

New Cats coach Chris Scott had implemented a forward press and zone that the Magpies couldn’t combat. They were dominating all facets of the game except the scoreboard.

The Pies led for much of the match, despite their inability to clear their defensive zone.

The Cats closed the gap in the third term, booting three goals to two, and entered the final break behind by only five points.

Geelong finally found the big sticks, capitalising on their opportunities early in the final term, booting three goals in quick succession to open up a vital 10 point lead.

If it was not for a dubious umpiring decision which disallowed a Scott Pendlebury goal, the Pies would have snatched the unwinnable game.

Geelong dominated the inside 50s, giving their forwards an opportunity on 62 occasions, a staggering 20 more than the Magpies.

Their domination in the time spent inside their forward half was due to their immense tackling pressure that the Magpies were used to dishing out, not receiving.

The Cats out tackled the Pies 82-60 and proved that the 2010 premiers had a challenger for the flag in 2011.

Joel Selwood and Joel Corey were the main Geelong midfielders giving their forwards the best opportunity to kick goals, with eight and nine inside 50s respectively.

Selwood finished the match with 29 disposals, but the story of the night was in the ruck, with Brad Ottens the standout.

The Magpies were without premiership ruckman Darren Jolly, and the big Cat took full advantage.

Ottens had 30 hit outs for the match, several of which were to the advantage of a teammate. He also had 13 disposals, four marks and four tackles in a dominant display.

For the Magpies, superstar Dane Swan continued his impressive start to the season in a performance that earned him three votes on Brownlow night.

The star midfielder had 30 possessions, eight marks, five inside 50s and a goal.

It was not, however, enough to get his side over the line, succumbing to the Cats by three points.

GEELONG – Bartel 2, Varcoe, Kelly, Johnson, Stokes, Christensen, Podsiadly
COLLINGWOOD – Sidebottom 2, Cloke 2, Krakouer, Pendlebury, Thomas, Brown, Swan

GEELONG – Selwood, Ottens, Kelly, Scarlett, Corey, Menzel
COLLINGWOOD – Thomas, Swan, Sidebottom, Shaw, Buckley

What the coaches said –
Geelong’s Chris Scott – “We were getting the shots, the game was being played up in our forward half, we thought we were dominating the game and quality players tend to turn around those skill errors very quickly.”

Collingwood’s Mick Malthouse – “We lost our structure. When you lose your structure in today’s football, you lose control of your own destiny, and it was all played in Geelong’s front half.”

How they lined up:

Geelong –
B: Josh Hunt, Tom Lonergan, Corey Enright
HB: Matthew Scarlett, Harry Taylor, Andrew Mackie
C: David Wojcinski, Joel Corey, James Kelly

HF: Travis Varcoe, Steve Johnson, Paul Chapman
F: Daniel Menzel, James Podsiadly, Cameron Ling
Foll: Brad Ottens, Jimmy Bartel, Joel Selwood
I/C: Darren Milburn, Mathew Stokes, Tom Hawkins, Mitch Duncan

Collingwood –
B: Leon Davis, Ben Reid, Harry O’Brien
HB: Alan Toovey, Nick Maxwell, Heath Shaw
C: Dale Thomas, Dane Swan, Simon Buckley
HF: Brad Dick, Chris Dawes, Luke Ball
F: Alan Didak, Travis Cloke, Steele Sidebottom
Foll: Cameron Wood, Scott Pendlebury, Jarryd Blair
I/C: Sharrod Wellingham, Leigh Brown, Andrew Krakouer, Chris Tarrant

At the selection table;
Collingwood –
In a different position to last week, the Magpies have several injury concerns that the match committee will be sweating on come Saturday morning. They will need to name a side on Thursday at 5pm and are expected to name all of Darren Jolly (groin), Ben Reid (quad), Ben Johnson (calf) and Nick Maxwell (ribs/thumb). The question is though, how many of these will line up opposite the Geelong players when the national anthem is sung.

Skipper Nick Maxwell and Ben Johnson are certainties after pulling up well from the game on Friday night. The Pies inspirational skipper will need more than bruised/broken ribs and a sore thumb to keep him out of the chance to be the back to back premiership captain.

Ben Reid and Darren Jolly are the biggest stories. Reid left the ground midway through the first term of Friday night’s preliminary final with a groin complaint. He disappeared down to the medical room and did not return until the end of the first break, where he completed some runs throughs on the ground before sitting on the bench. He returned to the field five minutes into the second quarter, but he was not at full capacity. He did, however, report to the club doctors that he loosened up and felt much better as the game went on, and his performance and running patterns certainly reflected that. He is expected to line up on Saturday, but will have some heavy strapping on his quad.

Jolly is the least likely of the two, after he injured his groin in the final 10 minutes of the match. He hobbled from the ground and received frantic medical attention on the Pies bench. He was quickly strapped up, and returned to the field but was clearly labouring. He has been upbeat so far this week about his chances of lining up on Saturday, and the early signs are good after he completed the main training session at Gosch’s Paddock on Wednesday. He will be expected to ramp up his preparation for Saturday’s grand final on Friday, in the club’s final hit out, before the players head to the annual grand final parade. He will surely undergo several fitness tests to ensure he will be at the level of fitness that will be able to compete at the highest level and, under the greatest pressure of a grand final.

Aside from injuries, the Magpies are also battling a couple of form issues with Dayne Beams and Alan Didak less than impressive on Friday night. Beams gathered only two handpasses in the first three quarters and was subsequently substituted for the mercurial Didak at three quarter time. Didak had an immediate impact in the last term, gathering three quick possessions but drifted out of the game from there. The enigmatic forward has battled injury and form for most of the season and coach Mick Malthouse and his assistants need to make a decision on whether to play Didak from the first bounce on Saturday, or drop him.

Beams could be relegated to the subs vest if he is lucky enough to keep his place in the side. The positive for him is that he has a good record against the Cats. While he did not play back in Round 8, Beams was the Pies’ standout performer against the Cats in 2010. In Collingwood’s Round 9 loss to Geelong he booted four of the Magpies’ six goals for the game, as well as gathering 17 disposals. And when the Pies defeated the Cats in Round 19, he booted three goals, including the sealer and had 13 possessions.

In the mix for the Pies at selection will be back up ruckman Cameron Wood, who will obviously come in if Jolly succumbs to injury. Tyson Goldsack is another versatile Magpie who has been in good form but was dropped in favour of Ben Reid for the preliminary final. He could be a handy substitute on Saturday as he can provide cover for Reid if he goes down. First year player Alex Fasolo is also in the mix if Malthouse decides to drop both Didak and Beams. He is considered an outside chance, however.

Possible changes on Thursday:
IN: T. Goldsack
OUT: D. Beams

How they will line up –
B: Leon Davis Chris Tarrant Alan Toovey
HB: Harry O’Brien Ben Reid Nick Maxwell
C: Dale Thomas Dane Swan Heath Shaw
HF: Alan Didak Travis Cloke Steele Sidebottom
FF: Andrew Krakouer Chris Dawes Leigh Brown
FOLL: Darren Jolly Luke Ball Scott Pendlebury
I/C: Jarryd Blair Ben Johnson Sharrod Wellingham Tyson Goldsack

Possible changes to Round 8 team for grand final
 Nick Maxwell, Darren Jolly, Tyson Goldsack
OUT: Brad Dick, Simon Buckley, Cameron Wood

Geelong –
The Cats are in a similar position to the Pies, although only have one real injury concern with mercurial forward Steve Johnson. Johnson wrenched his knee under West Coast opponent Andrew Embley’s leg in the third quarter of their preliminary final on Saturday. He was stretchered from the ground only to appear from the rooms midway through the final term, with only a bandage securing his injured knee and a limp. Scans on Sunday revealed no structural damage for the dangerous forward and is a chance to play in the grand final. He was a no show at their training sessions so far on Tuesday and Wednesday as expected.

Coach Chris Scott has already said that Johnson will need to be 99 per cent fit to be selected in the final team, and he will be given until Saturday morning to prove he will be able to go the distance and, to keep the Magpies guessing.

In the mix are the three emergencies from their preliminary final, Cameron Mooney, Darren Milburn and Shannon Byrnes. All premiership players, and all ready to make an impact should Johnson not come up. It could be a fairytale ending to Mooney’s career if he is selected, but for team balance Milburn or Byrnes are the most likely inclusions. Byrnes is a like for like replacement, but Milburn who has been the substitute player for Geelong on numerous occasions provides the same versatility for his team as Goldsack at the Pies. This could favour the veteran and he will be the most likely inclusion should Johnson fail in his audacious bid to be fit for Saturday’s decider.

Possible changes on Thursday:
No change

How they will line up

B: Josh Hunt Matthew Scarlett Tom Lonergan
HB: Corey Enright Harry Taylor Andrew Mackie
C: James Kelly Jimmy Bartel David Wojcinski
HF: Travis Varcoe Tom Hawkins Paul Chapman
FF: Steve Johnson James Podsiadly Matthew Stokes
FOLL: Brad Ottens Joel Selwood Joel Corey
I/C: Mitch Duncan Allen Christensen Cameron Ling Trent West

Possible changes to Round 8 team for grand final
Allen Christensen, Trent West
OUT: Daniel Menzel, Darren Milburn

Possible key match ups:

Travis Cloke v Tom Lonergan – While Harry Taylor might get first crack and the All Australian Centre half Forward, I expect Lonergan to spend the majority of the day on Cloke. Cloke has proven in past matches against the Cats that he can more than handle Taylor’s defensive tactics. He hasn’t though, been as successful on Lonergan. The result of this match-up may well just decide who are the premier s of 2011.

Chris Dawes v Harry Taylor – After booting 3 goals in the preliminary final, Dawes has well and truly regained confidence after a long lay-off with a broken knuckle. Lonergan will probably stand him at the bounce, but expect Taylor to mind him for most of the game. Looms as a vital cog in the Magpie machine, particularly with his ability to pressure the ball carrier.

Leigh Brown v Matthew Scarlett – Scarlett will line up for his annual field day against the Pies on Saturday. Malthouse and his caches will need to ensure he stand a man at all time on Saturday so he doesn’t have the opportunity to get loose and create off half back. Brown needs to make himself a hit up target to reduce Scarlett’s ability to sit in front of Cloke and Dawes. It has been proved that when Scarlett has been kept honest (most famously by Essendon’s Andrew Welsh in his side’s win over Geelong), Geelong have struggled. A must match up if the Pies are to win.

Tom Hawkins v Ben Reid – Hawkins has played his best two games of AFL in the finals series so far. Reid is under an injury cloud, but trained well on Wednesday and is an almost certain starter. Hawkins will have his work cut out for him, Reid is a quality defender who is creative and has no hesitation in backing himself to mark opposition kicks. As well as making himself a handy option up forward, Hawkins must ensure he keeps Reid away from Tarrant and Podsiadly.

James Podsiadly v Chris Tarrant – The Pod has been in excellent form in recent weeks and has proven to be the missing link in Geelong’s chain. Like Cloke at the other end, the game hinges on this battle and is Podsiadly can take some contested marks and kick straight, then the Cats may well be on their way to another flag.

Paul Chapman v Harry O’Brien – With Steve Johnson in doubt, I expect O’Brien to go to Chapman in the event he doesn’t line up on Saturday. Chapman is dangerous both around goals and in the midfield, he must be stopped if Collinwood are to win. Chapman though, must be wary of O’Brien’s drive off half back, which is often a barometer for the Pies.

In the midfield – Joel Selwood v Sharrod Wellingham, Dane Swan v Cameron Ling, Scott Pendlebury v James Kelly, Dale Thomas v Joel Corey

How do…
Collingwood win
We saw a manic Collingwood pressure the Cats into oblivion in last year’s preliminary final, and the same pressure will need to be brought to the ‘G on Saturday. This pressure has been missing in the past six weeks, and the Cats seem to have devised a new kicking based game plan to combat the Pies forward press. A 10 minute burst by the Eagles in their preliminary final against the Cats though, would have encouraged Malthouse. The Cats were forced back into their handballing out of trouble game plan and resulted in turnovers and easy West Coast goals.

In the midfield the Magpies’ hopes hinge on the availability of ruckman Darren Jolly. Despite star midfielder Dane Swan stating the players have faith in backup ruckman Cameron Wood, there is no doubt that a Collingwood outfit that includes Jolly will be better equipped to beat the Cats. If Jolly can impose himself and limit Brad Ottens’ ability to find a teammate with his hit outs, then the Pies will gain the ascendancy in the clearances. Swan is in scintillating form, as is Scott Pendlebury. Getting on top in the clearances will enable the Pies to isolate Cloke and Lonergan and Dawes and Taylor, giving them the best opportunity to either mark the ball, or create opportunities for Jarryd Blair and Andrew Krakouer.

The Pies defence has been one of its biggest strengths all season as no team kicked 100 points in any home and away game until Geelong in Round 24. Skipper Nick Maxwell will play a crucial role in being the third man up, and floating across Hawkins and Podsiadly. In the final term of the preliminary final, Maxwell read the ball better than anyone on the ground and was able to create multiple turnovers and drive the Pies forward. The Pies’ back six will need to ensure they get their structure right to ensure that they give Maxwell the opportunity to zone off his opponent and impact the contest.

The Leigh Brown-Matthew Scarlett match-up looms large. Scarlett is the best in the business when it comes to marking opposition kicks, and the Geelong back six try to free him up as much as possible. Malthouse will need to ensure Scarlett has an opponent at all times and, quick ball movement forward to one on one contests will take him out of the contest. If the Pies can hit up Cloke and Dawes with quick ball movement and pinpoint passes on the lead then they are going to be extremely hard to beat. But this all depends on their ability to keep Scarlett away from their power forwards.

Geelong win…
Chris Scott would have no doubt spent hours looking at how Hawthorn kicked their way through the Collingwood zone. It was an amazing effort from the Hawks who didn’t put a foot wrong. The Pies were exposed, and the Cats will no doubt try to emulate, and put their own spin on this game plan.

Brad Ottens has hit his usual finals form, and looms as the key to a Cats win. In the Round 8 game this year, Ottens dominated the ruck and was able to monster Cameron Wood. He was able to dictate play from the centre, and give his midfielders first use. This compounded in easy and quick forward 50 entries, putting pressure on the Pies’ defence. Joel Selwood will need to impose himself early in the middle, and get his hands on the footy first.

In defence, the Cats are the masters at creating a loose man, whether it is Matthew Scarlett or Corey Enright. Scarlett is by far their preferred loose man as he is the general of the backline. We saw the Pies struggle last week when the Hawks’ had a spare man in front of Cloke and Dawes, and on numerous occasions the spare man came into play, marking the ball before the power forwards could impact the contest. Once the Cats create a turnover, they must quickly move the ball by foot. They cannot get caught into the handballing trap that the Pies dismantled in last year’s finals series. The Cats are kicking the footy much more this season, but for a brief period fell into the handballing trap while under pressure. More kicks than handballs is essential against the Pies.

The Cats must also keep their forward line open, and this will happen via quick ball movement through the middle of the ground. The Cats love the corridor, and the Pies were exposed in this area last week. On numerous occasions, Lance Franklin had the 50 to himself against Chris Tarrant. The Cats will want to see many one on one contest between Podsiadly and Tarrant, and if the Pod can’t mark it, Scott knows he will create opportunities for the likes of Travis Varcoe and Allen Christensen.

The emotional factor:
Mick Malthouse – Obviously the biggest story of the year, Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse will lead his team for the final time on grand final day. Mick loves this group of players, he told us that in his winning speech on the dais some 12 months ago. But emotions boiled over on Friday night as the Pies extended his farewell tour by a week. He has been the only coach and mentor most of the current Collingwood players have had, and they have spoken openly about their great admiration for Mick as a person and as a coach.

The fans love him, the media don’t, but not even they can deny that it would be the story of the year if Malthouse could coach his team to back to back flags before he hangs up his binoculars.

Chris Tarrant – The prodigal son returned via a trade at the end of last season, and the players, namely Dane Swan, Ben Johnson and Alan Didak have spoken about their desire to get “Taz” a flag. They want him to feel the emotions they felt on October 2 last year. Didak recently said that he’d love to win the flag mostly for Taz, and it would be an amazing story if it were to happen.

Leon Davis – Much maligned throughout his career for his performances in finals, and he is still yet to play in a premiership despite receiving a medal last year for his efforts in the draw. Davis has so far been outstanding in the two finals this year, but can he perform on Saturday? It would be an even sweeter victory for the players and him personally if he could.

Andrew Krakouer – Is there a better football story than the amazing transformation of Andrew Krakouer? Since being released from a Perth prison, Krakouer hasn’t put a foot wrong, and he found himself at the biggest sporting club in Australia. He has provided several highlights so far this year, and none bigger than his unbelievable mark against Adelaide that earned him the Mark of the Year. It would be unbelievable story, and an inspiration to every young person in Australia, that no matter where you are in life, work hard, never give up and you’ll be given the chance to make amends.

As a team – After losing their dual premiership coach and arguably the best player in their history the Cats have made an unbelievable comeback to domination. We have always heard about the desire, drive and never say die attitude of the players, but when it was really tested at the end of season 2010, they have delivered in spades. The fans are proud, and soaking up every minute of their teams’ good form and so they should. It has been an incredible run that could culminate in a third premiership in five seasons. Ablett who?

Chris Scott – Bomber Thompson’s departure hit the Cats and the general football world hard. But the arrival of a fresh face, and unforgiving as a player face, has seen the reinvigoration of a group that many suspected would fall down the ladder in 2011. Scott has tweaked an already dominant game plan and made it even more difficult to beat the already intimidating Cats. What a story it would be if Scott saluted in his first year as a senior coach.

In conclusion…
It is so hard to pick a winner as both teams are so evenly matched. The Cats are in better form than the Pies, but previous weeks mean nothing on grand final day. Anything can, and will happen on Saturday. There is no doubt that both teams will leave nothing on the MCG at the end of the game, as the Pies aim to go back to back and the Cats aim for three in five.

Crowd prediction: 100, 012

Weather forecast: Max 15C. Partly cloudy, showers and possible hail. Winds up to 35km/h*
*As at 4.30pm on Wednesday 28 September

Written by: Kate Salemme