Essendon's bid to stop their faltering season from spiralling further out of control will be boosted next week with key players Paddy Ryder, Brent Stanton and David Zaharakis all set to return from injury for their crunch clash with arch nemesis Carlton.
After spending majority of the first half of the season in the top four, the Bombers (11-8) are now sitting precariously in eighth spot after suffering their fourth loss on the trot to North Melbourne on Sunday with only percentage keeping ninth-placed Fremantle at bay.
Coach James Hird confirmed Ryder (calf) and Stanton (hamstring) were all but certain starters for the blockbuster Round 21 match while Zaharakis (quad) was a good chance of taking on the Blues as well.
"Barring any injury this week or an accident this week then Paddy and Stants will be a certainty," Hird said post-match.
"Zakka (Zaharakis) should play but we just want to be very careful. He's had this nasty tendon injury in his quad and he's back running flat out, kicking flat out so we just have to make sure he can get through a game rather than rush him back in."
But given Ryder hasn't played since Round 15 and Zaharakis since Round 10, Hird knows their potential inclusions won't provide an instant cure for Essendon who have now lost five of their past six games.
Lack of match fitness has been a familiar theme for the Bombers this year with nearly 30 soft-tissue injuries plaguing the club.
"We need to make sure we can get some continuity back in our players," Hird said.
"It's always hard when guys are coming in and out of the team."
Hird also said dropped defenders Cale Hooker and Tayte Pears would come under consideration for a recall next round.
The Bombers boss is excited by the prospect of getting their bid for finals back on track at the MCG on Saturday against Carlton (10-9) who are now only a game further back in 11th spot and have an unlikely finals appearance in their sights.
"We're still eighth, we're in there with three games to go which is exciting but we need to start winning," Hird said.
The 24-point loss to the Kangaroos was made even more disappointing for the Bombers given North were down a man for three quarters after Daniel Wells (calf) and Leigh Adams (dislocated shoulder) failed to return to the field after quarter-time.
"You would have thought that with Wells and Adams coming off as early as they did that that would have helped us but it didn't help us," Hird said.
Hird said finals-bound North Melbourne had 'improved out of sight' and lamented the fact that Brad Scott's men 'outran' and 'outplayed' Essendon.
"They're a very, very good football team and we matched them for a while but we couldn't match them for the whole game," Hird said.
The Bombers' inability to win the ball off the Kangaroos coupled with poor skill level - North's disposal efficiency was 79 percent while Essendon's was 64 - went a long way to deciding the result, according to Hird.
"Whether it was handballing it through the front of the stoppage, which always hurts you, or keeping the ball off us in the backline, they did it really well," Hird said."I didn't think we used the ball very well tonight."