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Friday night's western Sydney derby shapes as one of the matches of the year: first versus third, two fierce rivals, and the ladder leaders up against the only side to have beaten them all year.

Can the Eels repeat what they achieved in round five, when they scored three tries in the space of seven minutes to win a game that was largely dominated by the likely minor premiers?

By any measure Parramatta have slipped in form in recent weeks, with two losses in their past four and their sputtering attack managing just two scores over 20 since round eight.

As uncovered in a recent NRL.com analysis, the Eels and Panthers are first and second respectively in 2020 among all teams for metres gained per week, with that round five match representing not just Penrith's sole loss of the year but the only time they have been outrun by their opponents. 

A key man in that regard will be winger Blake Ferguson, who has made the third-most metres of any winger this year behind Wests Tigers speedster David Nofoaluma and Panthers veteran Josh Mansour.

While he was relieved to get off his try-scoring duck against the Warriors, he was more focused on helping his team at the defensive end.

"I've just been working hard getting combinations right defensively and in the offence side," Ferguson said.

"It was good to get across the line but it was even better to get a win."

Panthers v Eels - Round 18

Ferguson's right-edge combination with Waqa Blake and Mitch Moses has leaked plenty of line breaks in 2020 and around half the team's conceded tries.

It was exploited to great effect in a 38-0 loss to the Rabbitohs in round 16 before showing improvement against the Warriors.

"I think we have [tidied it up]," Ferguson added.

"We've been pretty good all year. I feel like some teams have been getting some little flukey tries. We're going all right.

"Last week [against Souths] was just a little mishap, I think we just didn't have enough energy. This week will be a little bit different with a big game out at Penrith Stadium."

Eels coach Brad Arthur was confident they would be able to contain Penrith's dangerous left-side attack.

"I think there was one game there that we weren't great, but that was a whole team [effort] with Souths and we got exposed on that right edge," Arthur said.

"But overall, up until that point we'd had the least amount of tries and points against us [as a team], so I wouldn't say there's a drama there. We got exposed that night through some areas where the whole team contributed and I put that down to attitude."

Prop Junior Paulo will have an important job in the middle to counter Penrith's in-form James Tamou and James Fisher-Harris.

"They have a good winning streak at the moment, playing some expansive footy and some good footy," Paulo said.

"Their only loss has come down to us so we'll be looking to go out and put our best foot forward. We haven't been playing our best footy but NRL games are tough to win.

"They're sitting at the top of the table for a reason. A lot of that comes off the back of what their forward pack is doing."

Eels keen to make pre-finals statement against Panthers

Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary is arguably the competition's premier playmaker and his counterpart Mitchell Moses has been a crucial element of Parramatta's success.

It's the headlining match-up, but Arthur believes the big men will determine the outcome.

"Nathan's playing extremely well. He controls their team very well. He's very calm and patient and sticks to his plan," Arthur said.

"I feel like Mitchy's doing the same for us. It's just about what forward pack provides the most opportunities for the halves.

"The battle is definitely going to be through the middle-third of the field and it has to be won there for either half to stamp their authority on the game."

Veteran Eels centre Michael Jennings is always excited to come up against his former club while the decades of animosity between the two western Sydney teams should create a great spectacle.

"It's a great rivalry – I'm always excited to play against the old club, it should be exciting," Jennings said.

"We do take a lot out of that [round-five win] but it was a long time ago. We're really just focusing on what we need to bring this week.

"They're a different side now, we're just focusing on what we need to improve.

"Winning this will give us a great confidence boost going into the finals because we might play them again first round in the finals. If we get this win this weekend it will put us in good stead going into the finals."

Ray Stone will start at hooker for Parramatta with Reed Mahoney (shoulder) failing a fitness test on Thursday morning.

Penrith meanwhile are at full strength, but Arthur has a simple blueprint for knocking off Ivan Cleary's troops again.

"It's more about making sure that we give ourselves a chance by being really good defensively, which we'll have to be – they've got a lot of strike," Arthur said.

"And we need to make sure we get 50% possession.

"What happened in round five doesn't really count for much now ... It could've gone either way, that game.

"We showed [then], as we've showed this year, that there are different ways we can win a game, whether we have to come from behind or get out to a lead and have to hang on.

"We've had some tough, tight games over the last six to eight weeks which is going to put us in a really good place."