What a difference one kick can make in football.

Carlton entered last week’s game against Essendon knowing the importance of the game. Not only would a win be their first major scalp, but it would be their fourth in a row, heading into a difficult month of football. With games against Hawthorn, Sydney and Collingwood to come, a win last week would have had the Blues full of confidence, and could have announced themselves as more than flat track bullies. Five goals up in the third quarter, everything seemed to be going right.

Then, despite all the theories which have come from last week’s thriller, Carlton undisputedly choked.

It was not a goal umpiring non-call which lost the game for the Blues, nor was it a Kane Lucas miss. Neither was it due to the misses of Dennis Armfield, Chris Judd or Matthew Kreuzer, a kick out of defence from Lachie Henderson, or an uninspired Chris Yarran. The team as a whole switched off, and had to face the repercussions, as Essendon kicked eight of the last 10 goals to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Or, rather, Carlton snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

If they won that game, Carlton would have sat with seven wins and four losses; instead, it is now a very distinct possibility that they could be six wins and eight losses in a month’s time. Currently, they have the same record as they did last year with Brett Ratten at the helm. As such, comparisons were bound to be drawn as to whether or not Carlton have actually improved under Mick Malthouse.

Individuals have undoubtedly reaped the rewards with Mick at the helm: Armfield, Henderson, Jeff Garlett and Andrew Walker are all arguably having career-best seasons. Michael Jamison has returned to the form of 2011, along with the ever maligned Lucas getting some continuity after an injury-ravaged start to his career. While the loss column could be attributed to a tough early draw, Malthouse will surely be disheartened by his side’s midfield, so often perceived to be the strength of the club.

While the players themselves may have the ability to strike fear throughout the competition, the one-way running of 2010 seems to have spread throughout the Blues midfield. Twice in the last quarter last week, Essendon players found themselves unmarked in Carlton’s defensive 50 and scored easy goals, which in the context of the game were crucial. Regardless of the form of the back six, the amount of ball which was coming their way along with the lack of assistance meant that Carlton’s defence was bound to crack.

When the going got tough, the Carlton midfield – while still managing to get first hands on the ball – turned to butter. It turned into a case of bombing the ball long as to not have the blame, giving Jarrad Waite and co. no chance. For a side with finals aspirations, the Blues should have relished the opportunity to put the Bombers to the sword. They faltered, and now they find their season in jeopardy. If the Blues manage to get through this portion of their season, their mental fragility has no place in finals. In terms of qualification and success, their mental edge is in need of address.

And now they run into a Hawthorn side in ominous form, having won their last nine games after an opening round hiccup against the Cats. As Carlton supporters will be all too familiar with, Carlton have not managed to beat the Hawks since round six, 2005; they have faced each other nine times since. In fact, if you asked a Carlton supporter the last time they remember beating Hawthorn, they might look back to 1987.

For a side who displayed their distinct lack of mental strength last week, the hoodoo if nothing else will be to the Blues’ detriment, along with Hawthorn’s undoubted quality. To go along with this daunting task, after the bye the Blues will have to face a rampaging Swans outfit. This comes after the reigning premier put on what many have said to be the best performance of the year against the Crows. A week after they face the arch enemy Collingwood, and then St Kilda. The Blues will be hoping for two victories, yet both sides have posed troubles for Carlton in recent years, especially the Saints who beat them earlier in the season.

Again, it is not only their footballing ability which will come under fire in the next couple of weeks, it is their mental edge which could go a long way in determining whether or not they can secure a finals berth: a mental edge which Blues fans hoped Malthouse would instil. The coach has shown that ability itself does not make up for lack of commitment, having dropped Yarran for his demeanour last Friday night.

Carlton go into the game against Hawthorn as considerable underdogs, and justifiably so. While a win would clearly be the desired result, it is not the absolute for the Blues; they have to show what they have not managed to do all season. Their mental resolve and leadership has been criticised in recent weeks, and that will have to be addressed if the Blues are to be treated as serious in 2013. Accountability must be restored, as while the numbers look good on paper, the way in which the midfield was overrun last week was a major cause for concern, though the return of Andrew Carrazzo helps.

Had they been victorious last week, a finals spot would have been just about guaranteed, and there would have been nothing but positivity around Visy Park. Instead, the next month is all about survival.

All because of one kick.