AS QUICK as a Clayton Oliver handball, any lingering doubt about Melbourne's premiership credentials disappeared on Friday night.
Or as fast as a Kysaiah Pickett sidestep, a Christian Petracca bullet pass or a Steven May spoil. Whichever way you want to look at it, if you had a question on the Demons' capacity to match it with the best, it should be gone after their strong 28-point win over the Western Bulldogs on Friday night.
The 13.9 (87) to 8.11 (59) win in front of an empty Marvel Stadium due to Victoria's COVID-19 lockdown came after a week of drama for both clubs, with the Dogs forced to isolate on Tuesday after a staff member had visited an exposure site and then the Demons only cleared to play on Friday morning after one of their players had visited a tier one site earlier this week.
But the dynamics of the past 24 hours clearly had little bearing on Melbourne, which bounced back from its one-point loss to Adelaide last week with a comfortable win that saw them open up a gap on their nearest rival at the top of the ladder.
Both clubs entered the game 9-1 but it was the Demons who were clearly more ready the fight. They shut down the Dogs' rampant run, closed off their scoring and forced them into more skill errors than we have seen from Luke Beveridge's side so far this season. They kept the Dogs to their second-lowest score of the season, and on the return powered through 13 goals, headed by three to Tom McDonald and Bayley Fritsch.
Oliver was once again terrific with 32 disposals and five clearances as he continued his brilliant season, while May and Jake Lever held up the Demons' defence in a complete performance from a side that added to its impressive list of scalps, which now includes the Bulldogs, Richmond, Geelong and Sydney.
James Harmes' goal in the opening 20 seconds set the tone for the Demons, who cut through the Bulldogs to register a 27-point lead at the first change.
It was simultaneously Melbourne's best scoring opening quarter this season and the first time the Bulldogs had entered the second quarter in arrears, with the Dees' suite of goalkicking options enjoying a feast of opportunities.
In the battle of this year's heavyweights, Melbourne had thrown the first punch and it was a big one: the Dees' pressure was immense, their midfield was on top and the Bulldogs backline was struggling with the speed of entries.
The Dees weren't taking their foot off the pedal, with McDonald's back-to-back goals early in the quarter keeping the Dogs at bay. Two late goals to the Bulldogs, however, evened up the battle as they shaved the deficit to 19 points at the half-time break.
The third term was an arm-wrestle as the Bulldogs hung in the game before Sam Weideman, who had had a quiet night, broke through with two late goals to extend his side's lead to 36 points by the final change.
Where the Bulldogs had been staying within arm's reach of Melbourne, the young key forward's double act was the knockout blow, creating a buffer that the Dogs were no chance to chase down.
Who got the points in the battle of the superstars?
This was the battle within the war. With the Western Bulldogs' spearheaded by Marcus Bontempelli and Christian Petracca leading Melbourne's charge this season, this Friday night clash had superstar appeal from every angle. And two of this year's Brownlow Medal favourites didn't let anyone down, with both guns instrumental for their side. Petracca was busy early, with nine disposals in the first quarter, while a brilliant second-quarter pass to Tom McDonald set up a goal. He finished with 24 disposals and a goal. Bontempelli's nine-disposal second quarter brought the Dogs back into the game and he closed it out with 30 touches, although will be unlikely to add to his Brownlow Medal vote tally.
Dees end Bulldogs' Marvel-lous run
Before Friday night, the Bulldogs had played five games at Marvel Stadium this season for an average winning margin of 65 points. Included in that was two huge drubbings – 128 points over North Melbourne in round three and 111 last week against St Kilda – as well as a 62-point belting of Gold Coast. Clearly, the Dogs are hard to beat on their turf. But the Dockland Dees did it with ease, flipping what many thought would be an advantage in the clash of the 2021 titans.
Clash forces jumper switch
In the opening game of Sir Doug Nicholls Round, Melbourne had to wear its standard strip due to a jumper clash with the Bulldogs. The Demons had planned to wear their Indigenous guernsey for the game, but due to a clash with the Bulldogs' Indigenous design, they had to switch back. Instead, the Dees will wear their Indigenous jumper next week when they face Brisbane at TIO Traeger Park in the Northern Territory.
WESTERN BULLDOGS 2.2 6.5 6.8 8.11 (59)
MELBOURNE 6.5 9.6 12.8 13.9 (87)
Western Bulldogs: Bruce 3, English 2, Daniel, Naughton, Weightman
Melbourne: Fritsch 3, McDonald 3, Weideman 2, Gawn, Harmes, Jordon, Petracca, Pickett
Western Bulldogs: Macrae, Dale, Smith, Daniel, Bontempelli
Melbourne: Oliver, Petracca, May, Gawn, McDonald, Lever
Western Bulldogs: Garcia (concussion)
Western Bulldogs: Butler (replaced Garcia in second quarter)
Melbourne: Sparrow (replaced Langdon in the fourth quarter)