MELBOURNE had done the dirty work, now it was time for the statement.
Having overcome three necessary hurdles to start the year, the club laid down its most emphatic marker yet on Sunday with a comfortable 25-point victory over last year's runners-up, Geelong.
The Demons were hardly troubled in their 12.13 (85) to 9.6 (60) victory in wet conditions at the MCG, with their unwavering control over a successful Cats team the most significant aspect of their fourth straight win to open the year.
Christian Petracca performed like a player ready to go from breakout star in 2020 to dominant September threat in 2021, comfortably proving the best player on the ground with 36 disposals, nine clearances and two goals.
But he had fine support from midfield dynamos Clayton Oliver (34 disposals, six tackles) and Jack Viney (24 disposals, eight clearances), while Bayley Fritsch (14 disposals, four goals) mastered the slippery conditions in the forward line.
Geelong, on the other hand, is confronting a 2-2 start to the year having struggled to lay a glove on an up-and-coming opponent that looks more and more ready to provide it with a genuine finals challenge.
Joel Selwood (30 disposals, seven tackles) battled hard, but had few helping hands as the Cats trailed from the outset and struggled to gain a meaningful foot-hold in the match throughout a tough afternoon.
Melbourne instead had Fritsch to thank for breaking the game open. With intermittent spurts of heavy rain leading to a scrappy first half, the Demons forward was by far the cleanest in difficult conditions with the wet footy.
Fritsch had three goals himself by half-time, but it was his clever handball to Petracca on the siren preceding the interval that gave Melbourne a sizeable 23-point buffer heading into the main break.
Petracca himself had been among the game's best. That goal was his second of the afternoon and was enabled in-part by the freedom of Geelong tagger Mark O'Connor instead focusing his attentions on Oliver.
The Demons had to combat Steven May being substituted out of the clash before half-time, having copped a nasty stray elbow from Tom Hawkins which left the important key defender with blood streaming from around his eye.
But fellow tall Adam Tomlinson moved to Hawkins and was able to lock him down just as effectively, keeping the reigning Coleman Medallist to just two goals as Geelong was forced to look elsewhere for options.
Jack Henry kicked two to start the third term, while Isaac Smith called upon his years of experience to produce two clever snaps in a matter of moments as the Cats slashed the deficit from 30 points to just 12 by the final change.
The heavens opened again to start the decisive last quarter and, as had been the case during the earlier downpour, it was Melbourne – and Fritsch – who adjusted better to the ever-changing conditions.
His toughness in the air led to a strong mark, while his composure from a tight angle during the resulting set-shot led to his fourth goal, as the Demons joined the Swans and the Bulldogs in achieving an unbeaten first month to the year.
Tomahawk's stray elbow leaves May bloodied
It could be an interesting 24 hours for the Match Review, with Tom Hawkins again at the centre of an intriguing case study. Hawkins left Steven May bloodied around the eye following a gruesome collision, which forced the Melbourne defender to be substituted out of the clash and on his way to hospital soon after. May had tackled Hawkins, before being caught by a stray elbow to the face in the immediate aftermath of him disposing of the ball. Whether it will be seen as an unavoidable action, or as something more sinister, will be up to Michael Christian to decide on Monday. But for the Geelong forward, who has been cited for striking seven times in the last five seasons for four matches worth of suspensions and $6500 worth of fines, it is bound to be a nervous wait.
Petracca profits from Oliver tag
Geelong had a decision to make: Send in-form tagger Mark O'Connor to Christian Petracca or Clayton Oliver. The Cats chose Oliver, and it was Petracca who benefited. Although Oliver still got his hands to the footy in the hard-fought dual, winning 34 disposals for the match, it was Petracca who got off the chain and influenced the game more heavily in his side's favour. Petracca finished with 36 disposals, 10 score involvements and had two goals before half-time, with his ability to penetrate through the Geelong defence when in possession a particularly important factor in the game. Having such a talented double-act in the midfield is proving decisive for the Demons this season, and it appeared that way again on Sunday.
Cats find their Jack in attack
Jack Henry had kicked just one goal in two years before being swung forward last week, but the inspired move has led to Geelong finding a new marking option deep in attack. Henry, who was often trialled forward as a junior but has spent the majority of his AFL career as a defender, provided a nice foil to Tom Hawkins on Sunday and was one of few Cats positives in the absence of star new recruit Jeremy Cameron. Henry finished with two goals and two score assists from eight disposals. But while it might be a pragmatic move from Chris Scott, whether he remains forward when Cameron returns from a hamstring injury is another story.
MELBOURNE 2.4 6.8 9.9 12.13 (85)
GEELONG 1.1 3.3 8.3 9.6 (60)
Melbourne: Fritsch 4, Petracca 2, Jones, Pickett, Neal-Bullen, Gawn, Langdon, Melksham
Geelong: Henry 2, Smith 2, Hawkins 2, Miers, Clark, Stanley
Melbourne: Petracca, Viney, Oliver, Gawn, Fritsch, Langdon
Geelong: Selwood, Stewart, Kolodjashnij, Atkins, C.Guthrie
Melbourne: May (eye)
Geelong: Parfitt (hip) replaced in selected side by Narkle
Melbourne: Sparrow (replaced May)
Geelong: Holmes (unused)
Crowd: 33,728 at the MCG