Despite a stuttering start, Carlton saw off home-town rivals Melbourne Knights, 4-2 at Optus Oval on Sunday.
According to Knights' coach Vid Horvat, the loss means a top six place is out of reach. "We always must have ambition, but I don't know if it's reality to think of the six."
He would have been happy at half-time, as the teams were locked at one-all, with Knights having at least as much to draw heart from as Carlton - maybe more so given the teams' respective positions on the ladder.
Simon Colosimo was in the Carlton line-up after an absence through injury of several weeks. Carlton coach Eddie Krncevic opted to return him to the formation in midfield, rather than as sweeper, and explained: "He hasn't played for a while. (I played him) behind the two forwards. I thought his acceleration would cause a bit of havoc, and it did."
Colosimo put the coach's plan into action midway through an otherwise restrained opening to the game. He commenced a storming run from the half-way line, watched as Knights defenders backed off as the players they were marking made intelligent off the ball movements, only to blast over the bar.
Barely five minutes later, Colosimo was also instrumental in yet another rampaging foray before passing wide to Joe Tricarico on the right. Tricarico's shot went across the face of the goal, just beyond Andy Vlahos' despairing right foot lunge.
Ivan Kelic, on the hunt for his one-hundredth NSL goal almost achieved that milestone just before the half-hour. A slip by one-time team-mate, and now his principal tormenter David Cervinski allowed Kelic in for a shot from the edge of the penalty area, but watched as it flew over.
Colosimo's runs were clearly causing Knights some trauma, and increasingly he found his runs halted by unlawful means. One led to the booking of Dragi Nastevski.
The next had a more punishing outcome. Carlton captain Andrew Marth - another Knights old-boy - took the resulting free-kick, but blasted it into the Knights wall. The ball rebounded to Mark Atkinson - like Colosimo returning to first-team action after some weeks absence through injury. Atkinson cleverly fed the ball wide to where Cervinski had moved. Cervinski's cross was aimed for Moreira, and helped on its way by a deflection off a Knights head.
The deflection had taken it over Joe Didulica, and instead sat nicely for Moreira's header back into the patch of Joe Tricarico who hit the net from six yards.
Just before the break, Knights were to claw their way back into the contest. Ice Kutlesovski chased down a long ball played up the right, and out-fought the otherwise faultless Marcus Stergiopoulos. Kutlesovski managed to keep the ball in play at the corner, then play a ball neatly into the path of Kelic who scored his hundredth with a low drive wide to Adrian Cagalj's right.
"We must make some nice presentation to Ivan (before the next home game against Gippsland Falcons). Kelic is a great man, a great leader, a great scorer. He has so much experience and I'm so happy (for him). I prepared him before the game to take any penalty award, but I'm so happy because he scored from (open play)," said Horvat after the game.
A half-time tactical change was worked out in the Knights dressing room, and planned to take effect from ten minutes after the re-start.
"I had prepared Ante Kovacevic to play central midfielder after ten minutes, just Kelic up front, and Kutlesovski wide on the right. I planned to play six players in the midfield. But in the first minute they scored they scored, and so then it would be crazy to put another player in midfield."
Fittingly, it was Marth who had made a bustling run straight through the middle and played a through ball perfectly for Alex Moreira, by now facing only Didulica, and the Brazilian emerged triumphant. Horvat's re-arrangements were put aside.
Just after the hour, two goals in three minutes put the game beyond the reach of Knights. Firstly, Tricarico had made an advance down the right, turned his marker several times on the edge of the penalty-area before crossing. Vlahos - one of Carlton's smallest players - managed to get his head to it, sending it on to Moreira, laying in deadly wait inside the six-yard box. Once again, it was Moreira who won out.
Three minutes later, the Knights old-boy duo - Cervinski and Marth - combined to twist the knife. Cervinski's shot was too hot for Didulica to hold, rebounding for Marth who delighted in smacking the ball high into the now unguarded net.
Zeljko Susa restored some respectability to the scoreline from a Knights perspective when he netted from inside the six-yard box after Kelic set him up, but despite a late flurry of action from Knights, the points were Carlton's
Krncevic says it's too early to narrow down the Grand Final aspirants, "The cream will rise to the top in the next five to seven games. The second half of the season is very crucial. Hopefully, we'll be one of those teams in there."
It would be a rash action to bet against it.