It’s Snooker Christmas for anoraks everywhere from Wednesday as we fill up our thermos flasks, neatly fold away our train timetables and set out on the long road to The Crucible with the qualifiers for this season’s World Snooker Championship. Being held once more just down the road at Ponds Forge in Sheffield, the snooker capital of the world.
I can’t overstate how excited I am that this has come around again so quickly, for me and for lots of other fans out there the World Championship truly starts here, not on Saturday 15th April when the 16 players who qualify from the 16 groups here take on the top 16 players in the rankings.
The qualifiers are an integral and fantastic part of the championship and though it must be agonising to play in them, it’s a cracking watch for us spectators and you can almost guarantee that every session will have at least a smidgen of drama if not full on scenes of unbelievableness.
So below I have seperated the 16 mini-soaps into groups, this isn’t how it looks on the drawsheet but what we are essentially watching here are 16 x 8 player groups which will each produce a winner. There is no need for any of the players to look at anyone else other than who is in their group.
There will be live streaming throughout the qualifiers on selected matches on Eurosport Player and at the usual bookmaker websites all the way through to Judgement Day on Wednesday 12th when the 16 qualifiers will be decided.
If you didn’t catch the live You Tube show on Judgement Day last year with Neal Foulds going from table to table at breakneck speed then you should make a real effort to do so this time, it’s basically ‘Soccer Saturday’ for snooker and works a lot better than you might think, capturing all the drama as it unfolds as all 16 final qualifying matches play to a conclusion.
So here is a look at each of the 16 individual sections with a look at who is most likely to qualify from each one. Of course, there are bound to be some shocks and usually we end up with at least 2 people lining up at The Crucible who have never played there before, will that happen again this year?
Mark Williams vs Zhao Xintong
Liam Highfield vs Andres Petrov (a)
Stuart Carrington vs Alex Borg
Andrew Higginson vs Michael Georgiou
The name that doesn’t so much stand out in this group but float around before smacking you in the face is China Open runner-up Mark Williams. The good news for him is that the schedule is such that any fatigue he may suffer post-Beijing should have faded and if so you’d have to be a brave soul to bet against him coming through this group. OK, his opening opponent is dangerous, but over the longer matches I think experience will tell. Liam Highfield can produce strong performances but again an 80% MJW would prevail over distance you’d feel. The main threat for me doesn’t come from Andrew Higginson but from Stuart Carrington, who has qualified before so knows what it takes, I think it will be him and Williams who lock horns on Judgement Day and that MJW will qualify for the Crucible for the first time in his long career (he’s always either been seeded or lost in the qualifying stages) EDIT: It turns out that he has qualified once before, in 2009, but I am leaving this in because the source of the information was none other than Mark J Williams, who it appears has the memory of a turbot).
Predicted to Qualify? Mark Williams beats Stuart Carrington on Judgement Day.
Tom Ford vs Jamie Bodle (a)
Chris Wakelin vs Elliot Slessor
Matt Selt vs David John
Hossein Vafaei vs Hatem Yassin
Tom Ford is the bookies favourite to come through this group and a fairly short priced one at that, which I have to say surprises me a bit. Jamie Bodle, his first round opponent is no mug and could easily cause an upset if he’s on song and then he’d have the winner of the dangerous Chris Wakelin and Elliot Slessor, again both capable. But then look at the bottom half, Matt Selt and China Open semi-finalist Hossein Vafaei must surely have something to say in this group. I’d say that their likely match-up will determine who makes it all the way to The Crucible and I’d imagine it will be very tight, but with the wind in the Iranian’s sails I am going to plump for him to upset the odds here.
Predicted to Qualify? Hossein Vafaei beats Chris Wakelin on Judgement Day.
Robin Hull vs Reanne Evans (a)
Matthew Stevens vs Lee Walker
Noppon Saengkham vs Jak Jones
Anthony Hamilton vs Craig Steadman
Reanne Evans joins the tournament by virtue of her World Championship win last year but she couldn’t really have asked for a much tougher draw in Finland’s Robin Hull, another who knows what it takes to get out of Ponds Forge in tact, the winner faces the fading force of Matthew Stevens or MJW’s coach Lee Walker. Matthew doesn’t seem half the player he was of late and we all keep waiting for him to spark back to life, if he does it will probably be in this event but I can’t see him getting past Hull. In the bottom section I think the qualifier resides in Pottingham’s finest Anthony Hamilton. He’s enjoying his best season for over a decade and it would be fitting to see him back where he belongs at the end of it. It’s not an easy path and he can get a bit jaded over the longer format but he’s the best player in this section.
Predicted to Qualify? Anthony Hamilton flies the flag for Pottingham beating Robin Hull on Judgement Day.
Li Hang vs Fraser Patrick
Mike Dunn vs Andy Hicks (a)
Nigel Bond vs Ng On Yee (a)
Stephen Maguire vs Kritsanut Lertsattayatthorn
Another ‘leaper’ here is Stephen Maguire, down in the doldrums of the twenty-somethings and having to qualify for a championship that once we all thought he’d one day win, with each year and each passing first round defeat this is looking less and less likely. On paper he should qualify from this group but looking more closely there are obstacles out there. His first opponent from Thailand is no pushover and if Mags takes him lightly he’ll get a shock, then he’ll have the wily experience of Nigel Bond who could frustrate him. Up at the top there is a dangerous Chinese player Li Hang as well as three other gritty competitors in Dunn, Hicks and Patrick. It might sound like I am trying to convince myself that Maguire won’t justify what I think is too short a price to prevail, I am, but I have only just failed.
Predicted to Qualify? Stephen Maguire to battle through beating Li Hang on Judgement Day.
Mark King vs Paul Davison
Zhang Anda vs Fang Xiongman
Xiao Guodong vs Tyler Rees (a)
Sam Baird vs Ross Vallance (a)
The presence of two amateur players in this group for me makes the bottom two first round matches fairly predictable with the top half seeing Mark King try and get back to The Crucible after his most profitable season for some time which saw him win his first ever ranking event in Belfast. His match with Paul Davison will be one for the purists and the winner faces a tough tie whoever comes out of the clash below. I’ve no real strong feelings in this group and although Guodong is a worthy favourite I think this one is the trickiest so far, I’d like to see King back at The Crucible so forgive me if my heart rules my head a little on this one.
Predicted to Qualify? Mark King pips Sam Baird in a dramatic Judgement Day classic.
Ben Woollaston vs Chris Totten (a)
Ken Doherty vs Jason Weston
Ghou Yulonge vs Christopher Keogan
Ian Burns vs Ian Preece
Another amateur here to warm up Ben Woollaston who could have asked for a tougher draw than he’s got. Ben is another with experience of getting out the other end of Ponds Forge and has a very winnable path to Judgement Day here given Ken’s recent sad news. Ken I’m sure will give it his all but his place on the tour is all but gone and the only place you can really imagine him in Sheffield this year is sitting with Hazel and the team. Dennis’s favourite Ghou Yolonge is vying for favouritism with Ben for this section but faces more difficult openers. Keogan is no pushover and has the game to frustrate a young potter like Ghou and Burns and Preece are also threats, Burns possibly the stronger of the two. But all in all I expect the two at the top of the betting to battle it out for a Crucible spot and I’ll take experience to prevail in the Leicester man.
Predicted to Qualify? Ben Woollaston to beat Ghou Yolonge on Judgement Day, sorry Dennis.
Alfie Burden vs Adam Duffy
Jamie Jones vs Jamie Barrett
Dechawat Poomjaeng vs Chen Zhe
Graeme Dott vs Allan Taylor
Another former world champion in this lot as Graeme Dott attempts to make up for a very poor season by his standards with a last push at the end. He faces the man who does a great impression of him Allan Taylor in the opener. Allan has been pipped a few times in deciders this season and this match is huge for his tour chances so the incentive is there against a player who seems to be well past his best. Poomjaeng is another who is fighting for his tour place and I think he’ll have his work cut out to remain on from this draw. Up at the top Jamie Jones we know has the pedigree but there are banana skins aplenty up there too. On balance though I think JJ is the man to be on in this section.
Predicted to Qualify? Jamie Jones beats Chen Zhe on Judgement Day.
Tian Pengfei vs Zhang Yong
Fergal O’Brien vs Gerard Greene (a)
Rhys Clark vs Wayne Townsend (a)
Dave Gilbert W/O Patrick Wallace (a)
When I first look at the qualifying groups and consider a ‘To Qualify’ bet shortlist one of the names I look for straight away is Dave Gilbert, he has an albeit experienced amateur first off EDIT: Patrick Wallace has withdrawn from the event before meeting the improved Rhys Clark, but something tells me that the Tamworth man will be quietly confident in this section. For me the obvious threat comes from Fergal O’Brien though the bookies feel Pengfei is more of a danger to Gilbert’s obvious qualification, but his inconsistency knows no bounds and to trust him over 3 long matches is not advised. For me Gilbert beats Fergal here.
Predicted to Qualify? Dave Gilbert qualifies again beating Fergal O’Brien on Judgement Day.
Joe Perry vs Zack Richardson (a)
Mei Xiwen vs Akani Songermsawad
Mark Joyce vs Jordan Brown (a)
David Grace vs Thor Chuan Leong
Joe Perry is one of the players who you wouldn’t normally see around these parts until a week or so later and given he’s been on our screens quite a bit this season it’s hard to know how he’s ended up dropping out of the top 16, but he has and here he is. His path to Judgement Day could have been harder and I’m sure he’s got one eye on the other half to see who he’ll end up playing for his place in the last 32. For me the obvious answer is Mark Joyce, fresh from a great win over Ronnie O’Sullivan in China last week when he looked in great form he could well be the man to put a spanner in the Gentleman’s works, but on balance, Perry pips it, just.
Predicted to Qualify? Joe Perry squeezes through against Mark Joyce in a Judgement Day Thriller.
Luca Brecel vs Sean O’Sullivan
Joe Swail vs Sanderson Lam
Dominic Dale vs Boonyarit Kaettikun
Daniel Wells vs Adam Stefanow (a)
This is a tough group to call. You could make a case for at least 3 and possibly 4 of them and there are others who are more than capable of springing a surprise. I expect Luca and Sean to be close as well as Joe and Sandi, I’ve been impressed with Sandi recently and would not rule him out of being this season’s surprise qualifier. Down at the bottom is for me one of the most improved players of the season, Daniel Wells. He’s really stepped it up recently and his performances this season have seen him break into the top 64 on merit, he has Adam Stefanow first up and will know his game well before a likely meeting with Dom Dale. Even writing this the doubts are creeping in and literally none of these except the one I can’t pronounce would be a surprise to me, I’m going to take a punt on this one as for me this could be the section of shocks.
Predicted to Qualify? Surprise package Daniel Wells beats Sanderson Lam on Judgement Day and relishes his Crucible debut.
Gary Wilson vs Josh Boileau
Thepchaiya Un-Nooh vs Peter Lines (a)
Ross Muir vs Gareth Allen
Michael White vs Aditya Mehta
Judging by his scoring recently in China, Michael White has rediscovered the form and confidence that deserted him last season and if he’s on song you’d really have to fancy him to reach Judgement Day from this section. I’d say he’s a rung above on the ladder to the three around him and can’t see him not winning his first two matches. Up at the top, the explosive Thepchaiya Un-Nooh would be a popular winner with those seeking thrills on the baize, he’s inconsistent but when his head is on he’s deadly. Peter Lines, the newly crowned World Seniors champion will try and shackle him in no doubt but I can see the final of this section again being between the two favourites.
Predicted to Qualify? Michael White beats Thepchaiya Un-Nooh at breakneck speed on Judgement Day.
Rory McLeod vs Darryl Hill
Kurt Maflin vs Sydney Wilson
Martin O’Donnell vs Jackson Page (a)
Ricky Walden vs Hammad Miah
Ricky Walden has had some physical problems this season which partly explains his drop down the rankings and poor results. He has recently indicated an upturn in his form and overall wellbeing and it goes without saying that a fully back to health and form Walden is a worthy favourite here, it’s not that long since he was a semi-finalist at The Crucible after all. He’s got a potentially tricky second rounder in my mate O’Donnell assuming he can take care of the 15 year old who looks like a 28 year old Jackson Page. Up at the top I’d say it’s a nice path for Kurt Maflin and if he is in scoring mode he can wallop anyone. While there remains a question mark over Ricky I think Kurt is the safer option here.
Predicted to Qualify? Kurt Maflin to edge out Ricky Walden on Judgement Day.
Michael Holt vs Hamza Akbar
Jamie Cope vs Eden Sharav
Peter Ebdon vs Michael Wild
Jack Lisowski vs Jimmy White
This could see the end to one of snooker’s most glamorous and sizzling careers with Jimmy White playing for his tour survival against the very dangerous Jack Lisowski, who I’ll take to send Jimmy home, though it would not surprise me one bit if he then ended up entering Q-School. Peter Ebdon isn’t having a great season and has other interests outside of snooker as well a newly crafted role as part of the BBC team, he isn’t a certainty for his opener and I’d think Lisowski would have a bit too much in the locker in Round 2 for him. Up at the top you would have to fancy Michael Holt in a winnable section with Jamie Cope continuing to be, well Jamie Cope. So it’s then a question of who you fancy out of Holt and Lisowski, I’ll stick with The Hitman.
Predicted to Qualify? Michael Holt to beat Jack Lisowski in the Battle of the Heartthrobs on Judgement Day.
Alan McManus vs Kurt Dunham
Rod Lawler vs Xu Si (a)
Jimmy Robertson vs Cao Yupeng
Oliver Lines vs Duane Jones
This section sees last year’s surprise semi-finalist McManus in a tough old field with peer Rod Lawler, another fighting for tour survival as well as young buck Oli Lines and the solid Jimmy Robertson, who faces Cao Yupeng first up. Angles has never been beaten at Ponds Forge so he has that in his favour but his form seems to have dipped a bit and he’s not going into this playing as well as he was last year. Rod is tough as teeth and I fancy him to beat Angles in the second round but for me the player they have to beat in this section is Robertson, he’s a player I think who is a little under the radar and more than capable of cruising through if on his A Game.
Predicted to Qualify? Jimmy Robertson stops Rod Lawler in his tracks on Judgement Day.
Yan Bingtao vs Sam Craigie
Dark Mavis vs Mitchell Mann
Scott Donaldson vs Wang Yuchen
Robert Milkins vs Alexander Ursenbacher (a)
Two big hitters here in Rob Milkins and Dark Mavis and obviously their chances here have to be respected. Two names that interest me most though are current SB Classic Champion Sam Craigie and former Runner-Up and Crucible qualifier last year Mitchell Mann, both big prices to progress and both fantastic talents. Many also rate Sam’s first opponent Bingtao, who like Jackson Page looks like a middle aged man trapped in a younger body, Scott Donaldson is also very capable so this is one tough section and no stroll for the bookies favourite Mavis. My inherent bias says Sam and Mitchell will fight it out in the second round but I can’t see it happening though I will say that any of those top 4 could easily qualify so Sam and Mitch are worth a punt at very big odds. There’s no safe bet here so my best guess is below.
Predicted to Qualify? Rob Milkins beats Dark Mavis on Judgement Day, possibly, or maybe two others – I’ve no idea.
Robbie Williams vs James Cahill
Yu Delu vs Itaro Santos
John Astley vs Igor Figueiredo
Martin Gould vs James Wattana
Martin Gould is in the final section and is odds on to get through, but this flies in the face of the history books as Robbie Williams, a man who has never lost a match here, unlike Gould, heads the group. Robbie could well be one of those ‘horses for courses’ type players who just clicks at certain venues and I do fancy him to at least make the final day. In the other section John Astley for me represents the biggest threat to Gould but I can’t see the Pinner Potter not facing Williams come the final day, can Robbie keep his 100% Ponds Forge record? Yes, I think he can.
Predicted to Qualify? Robbie Williams wins a tense Judgement Day knee trembler over Martin Gould.
RECOMMENDED BETS: I have gone for a combination of 6 folds from the following 8 players over at Sportingbet who are sportingly accepting multiples on this market. The players are: Mark Williams, Anthony Hamilton, Ben Woollaston, Jamie Jones, Dave Gilbert, Joe Perry, Michael Holt and Jimmy Robertson. I have made Williams, Jones, Gilbert and Perry my main fancies.
DECENT PRICED SINGLES/DOUBLES TO SMALL STAKES: Kurt Maflin (11/4), Rob Milkins (4/1), Jimmy Robertson (7/2), Hossein Vafaei (4/1), Robbie Williams (11/2).
PUNTS: Sanderson Lam (28/1), Mitchell Mann (40/1), Sam Craigie (50/1).
FAVOURITES FIRST ROUND BUMPER ACCA: It might sound mad but a 14-fold on these pays over 5/1 at Bet 365 and I’m quietly confident of it landing – Tom Ford, Stuart Carrington, Sam Baird, Rhys Clark, Zhou Yuelong, Thepchaiya Un-Nooh, Gary Wilson, Mark Joyce, Michael Holt, Martin Gould, Rory McLeod, Robbie Williams, Liam Highfield, Kurt Maflin.
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