Carlton are staring down what will effectively be an elimination final in the final regular season games after their finals hopes took a serious hit in a heartbreaking loss to Melbourne.
One of the form teams of the first half of the season, the Blues have battled for form in the second half of the year and squandered an opportunity to lock in their spot in the top eight on Saturday night.
The Blues looked to have an important win over the reigning premiers sewn up when Melbourne's Kysaiah Pickett broke Carlton hearts with just 11 seconds left to play.
Pickett's classy goal at the death consigned the Blues to a narrow five-point loss, and also robbed them of the opportunity to guarantee their first finals appearance since 2013.
The Blues now await a make or break game next weekend against Collingwood to ensure their place in the top eight, and a subtle act from coach Michael Voss after the game could prove decisive next time out.
Voss, a former triple premiership player with the Brisbane Lions, was cleary disappointed after the final siren, tucking his hands into his pockets and starting towards the rooms in a hurry.
But former AFL great Matthew Lloyd noticed what he described as an important moment for the team, as Voss then turned around to walk towards each of his players as they came from the ground.
“This is as bad as a home and away loss gets … I’ve lost a prelim by a point but this is as close to what you get with a home and away loss,” Lloyd said on the Sunday Footy Show.
“Vossy, he stands on the bench with the players and coaches from down there – he just started charging off on his own, disconsolate, hands in his pockets. He was going to head straight down to the rooms.
“Just as he got close, I reckon it triggered and he thought: ‘I can’t just go off and leave my players there.’
"He turned back around, walked 60m back, he tapped every player on the bum, he and ‘Crippa’ (Patrick Cripps) walked down arm-in-arm.
“So I reckon he thought to himself: ‘I’ve got to be here with my players and we’ve got one week to try and salvage and turn this around.’”
Carlton facing do-or-die clash after bruising loss to Melbourne
The Blues coughed up multiple opportunities to close out Saturday night's arm wrestle at the MCG, ultimately conceding two late goals to lose by five points.
In doing so, they missed the chance to confirm a first finals appearance in nine years and left Voss "gutted".
But the first-year Blues boss was full of praise for his "brave" players, knowing their finals fate is still in their own hands.
"Some of the structure was there but some of the detail that we need to be able to finish off the game, we just couldn't get that right in the last two minutes," Voss said.
"I understand that will be part of the conversation, but I'd rather it be a conversation around how we played throughout the game.
"As disappointed as we are, we walk away knowing that we can tidy up a couple of things in that place.
"The game itself was a high-pressure game, it had a finals look about it and we brought a style of footy that really stacks up. I'd like for us to do that again."
Carlton's finals prospects could now be decided in what looms as a must-win clash with arch-rivals Collingwood in round 23.
Expected victories for Richmond and the Western Bulldogs would turn the Blues-Magpies encounter into a virtual elimination final for Voss's side.
"It's really exciting for us," Voss said.
"I've spoken about the opportunity and it's about exposure for us playing in these sorts of games.
"It can only be good thing for us and how we grow and develop out of this as a footy team."
Voss expects Adam Cerra to return against Collingwood after the midfielder was a late withdrawal from the Melbourne clash because of adductor tightness.
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