Bombers, Blues to rumble in old-school blockbuster

The face of Carlton's gladiatorial bouts with Essendon at the turn of the century, Anthony Koutoufides is thrilled to see the two AFL heavyweights back trading blows on centre stage.

Sunday night's sold-out blockbuster at the MCG is the two fierce rivals' biggest clash in more than two decades.

Last year's preliminary finalists, fifth-placed Carlton are staking their claim as genuine flag contenders.

Carlton's Patrick Cripps.
Carlton's form this season, led by captain Patrick Cripps, has delighted their army of fans. (Rob Prezioso/AAP PHOTOS)

Resurgent Essendon sit second with eyes on snapping a finals win drought that has dogged them for nearly 20 years.

"It's been a long time coming, hasn't it?" Koutoufides told AAP.

"I grew up in an era when Carlton and Essendon were just always up there and the battles were enormous.

"This brings in so much hype into this game - particularly Essendon, who have just been the surprise packet of the year, really.

"I didn't expect them to be right up there the way they have, and so it all of a sudden becomes a huge game once again.

"It's so pleasing to see the hype, and I've had so many people ask whether I've got any spare tickets.

"Two old rivals, back again in that type of position,  is wonderful to see."

Carlton thumped Essendon in the 2011 elimination final, but realistically the last time the eyes of neutrals were all on this rivalry was across the 1999 and 2000 seasons, including two preliminary finals.

Back then, spectacularly athletic Koutoufides had Carlton supporters eating out of the palm of his hand - and Essendon fans clutching their faces in theirs.

Carlton's Anthony Koutoufides.
Carlton's Anthony Koutoufides was loved by Blues fans and feared by Bomber supporters. (Julian Smith/AAP PHOTOS)

One of the finest moments of Koutoufides' career was his last quarter of the 1999 preliminary final, when he was the difference as the Blues shocked Essendon to their bootlaces by one point.

"I get nervous just thinking what it was like running out there," he said.

"In the year 2000 we played in front of 90,000 people there. We've had some huge games and we've had some close battles.

"It's a big rivalry. Now in particular, when both teams are right up there, it really brings the best out of both teams and the supporters come out in huge numbers to go and witness this."

In recent years, these matches have often been low-stakes meetings between two fallen giants.

Carlton were set back years by their salary-cap scandal of the early 2000s, and Essendon's supplements saga proved similarly debilitating and difficult to move on from.

Now, reality might finally reflect the lofty ambitions and pride of both supporter bases.

"They're two clubs that during my time I never expected to see down in the doldrums for so long," Koutoufides said.

"And it has been a long time coming, so it makes it even more special.

"It's a huge game for both teams this weekend.

"Although I'm predicting Carlton to win, I'll be hiding behind closed doors I reckon for a week if we don't."

Essendon's Zach Merrett.
Essendon's Zach Merrett is leading an in-form midfield for the Bombers. (Julian Smith/AAP PHOTOS)

The winner of Sunday's match - which Koutoufides thinks will come down to midfields led by Patrick Cripps and Zach Merrett respectively - will put their name up in lights.

But the 1995 premiership winner believes, regardless of the result, a "wonderful" Carlton group has what it takes to go all the way - and maybe more than once.

"We had the most incredible team in the '90s and won one. And in hindsight with the team that we had, we should have probably won more," Koutoufides said.

"We didn't make the most of it for whatever reason.

"But they've certainly got that opportunity to do something special."