Snookerbacker

January 10, 2018

The Masters Preview

Filed under: snookerbacker @ 9:30 am

Alexandra Palace once again plays host to The Masters from Sunday, the tournament where the top 16 players in the rankings (usually) battle it out for the £200,000 winners prize, with each match up to the two session final played over the best of 11 frames. Hashtag, Bliss.

This year there are two debutants, namely the first time top 16’ers, Scotland’s Anthony McGill and Belgium’s Luca Brecel as well as a returnee after a nine year absence in Ryan Day, who will be playing at this venue for the very first time. The remaining 13 all played here last year, are pretty old hands at this and are well used to the surroundings of London’s main showpiece snooker arena.

So who are the main casualties that are missing out to make way for the three newbies above?

Well, the obvious first one is Neil Robertson, who, although now back into the top 16 (he’s 13th) unfortunately left it one tournament too late to grab a place by winning the Scottish Open in December, after the final cut off date in the rankings for this. The unfortunate Robbo will be joining the Eurosport team and he’s never short of an opinion so that should be an entertaining addition to their coverage for those who prefer them to the BBC.

Secondly, Stuart Bingham, who again though ranked in the top 16 (he’s 11th) is still serving out his suspension for a breach of betting rules, he’ll be back in a few weeks time. This means that both Day (17th) and Liang Wenbo (18th) make the starting line up this time.

Another player who we’d normally expect to see lining up here but isn’t is Stephen Maguire (19th). His poor overall season last year saw him drop down the rankings though he is moving in the right direction again now. Another recent Ally Pally stalwart Joe Perry (21st), also misses out for the same reason, as does Mark King (20th) despite a spirited attempt to creep through the back door unnoticed at the death.

But as ever, despite it being not the top 16 players in the world this year, it’s a great line up and any of the first round matches could, these days especially, be a ranking event final. Highlights for me are the Selby/Williams clash on the opening Sunday afternoon where we hope they can dish up some winter drama to warm us all up. Mark Allen and Luca Brecel is another which I think will be a cracker and very attacking, while as we move into the week we see another crash/bang/wallop encounter between Judd Trump and Liang before Shaun Murphy and Ali Carter lock horns in what usually is a very entertaining match up, we’ll surely see a decider or two in amongst that lot you’d think.

But whoever your personal favourite is, this is one of the snooker weeks of the year and I almost got though the whole of this preamble without mentioning Ronnie O’Sullivan; winner here for the last two seasons and bidding for a further record breaking eighth Masters title, as he already holds the record with seven. It’s quite staggering that after his first title in 1994/95 it took him a decade to win another one in his own neck of the woods and yet he is still in line to add to this tally. His longevity at the top of the sport alone should quash any arguments about him not being the best player the snooker world has ever seen and he shows no sign of slowing down just yet.

Anyway, here is a look at each match individually in the order in which they are played, remember this is a one table situation throughout.

You can click on the match itself to take a look at each head to head stat, courtesy as ever of the excellent Cue Tracker website.

The way each match slots into the draw is captured in the image either above (mobile view) or to the right (desktop view).

Mark Selby v Mark Williams (Sunday January 14 at 1pm)

The curtain raiser features World Champion Selby taking on Williams in this round for the second year in succession following Selby’s deciding frame win when the pair met last year. Interestingly, for followers of patterns and history’s habit of repeating itself, it’s worth noting that in the six years since the event was moved to Ally Pally only two matches on the opening cosy, sold-out, Sunday winter afternoon live on the BBC have failed to go to a decider. The only exceptions were in 2016 when Mark Allen beat Shaun Murphy 6-4 and back in 2012 when Ronnie beat Ding by the same scoreline. So Bazza’s Big London Show does tend to usually start with a bang. Who can forget Liang Wenbo being one ball away from knocking out eventual champion O’Sullivan this time last year? The numpty. If you look at the head to head between these two and factor all the information above into your calculations, it’s fair to say that if ever a match had decider written all over it, it’s this one. Selby, by his standards has had a pretty poor season so far, he’s only won the most lucrative event in China but it’s his shock defeat to Scott Donaldson at the UK that is most clear in the memory. Williams on the other hand is enjoying something of an Indian summer in his career and looks a contender again at everything he plays in. His win over in Northern Ireland showed that he maintains a champions touch and I don’t think he’ll mind too much being thrust into the limelight again here. I think it will follow the pattern of recent history and go either 6-4 or 6-5 again. I’m going to side with the Welshman to end the World Number 1’s journey at the first stop in an opening afternoon thriller. Get the kettle on, get the posh tin of bikkies out and put your feet up.

On your Marks….

Prediction: Williams 6-5

Recommended Bet: Over 9.5 frames in the match at 5/4. 

Mark Allen v Luca Brecel (Sunday January 14 at 7pm)

One thing I think it’s safe to predict here is that we’re not going to be seeing a lot of safety between two of the most entertaining, attacking players on the tour. Luca is yet to trouble Mark in the three meetings they have had but it could be argued that Mark hasn’t yet faced the new, improved, grown up, inked-up hipster version of the Belgian Bullet and that makes this a mouth-watering tie. Luca has improved in leaps and bounds over the last two seasons, capturing his first title and establishing himself for the first time within the upper echelons of the sport. He’s a fabulous natural talent and has what a lot of the top players have, including Allen, the ability and the bottle to raise his game on the big stage, which he is now finding himself on more and more. For me this could be one of the matches of the tournament and I’d expect, with it being on Day 1, the opening day pockets to do their job and provide us with some big breaks. In terms of a result, I’ll marginally side with Allen who seems in decent form of late, but it would be no surprise if Luca won here and I’d go as far as to say not the biggest surprise if he ended up right at the sharp end come the end of the week. I’ve taken big pre-draw odds on that very thing happening, though said draw could have been a lot kinder to him with a possible clash with O’Sullivan awaiting the winner.

Prediction: Allen 6-4

Recommended Bet: Brecel to make at least one century at 13/8.    

Ding Junhui v Ryan Day (Monday January 15 at 1pm)

The immediate thing you notice about the head to head for these two is that when they meet in big events they usually end up playing a decider. It’s happened five out of the last six times they have played with the other one being won 6-4 by Day, so to say that Ding is a clear favourite in this match would be foolish. Indeed looking back you could argue that Ryan has the edge when they get to the big stage and despite the fact that this is his first match at the Ally Pally he’ll come into this full of confidence, having broken back into the top sixteen, albeit temporarily, for the first time in the best part of a decade at the UK with some of his career best snooker just before the Christmas break. Contrast this with Ding, looking bereft of confidence in the UK and before, following some trouble with his eyes, losing to players that you’d normally expect him to hammer and you have to say that if there is a favourite here purely on recent form, it has to be Day. Ding did manage to qualify for Berlin just before Xmas with a deciding frame win over Gerard Greene followed by a comfortable victory over Nigel Bond, so there are signs that his health troubles are behind him, but to back him here you are relying on the fact that he’s back to top form, which to me is too big an ask in such a short space of time. Win or lose, whichever way you look at it the value in terms of a bet here is Day, especially if you think he might get the job done without the need for a decider and fancy chancing the handicap markets.

Prediction: Day 6-4

Recommended Bet: Day to win at 13/8.   

Judd Trump v Liang Wenbo (Monday January 15 at 7pm)

Another potential corker of a match between two similar style of player who couldn’t really be more equal on the head to heads at 5 matches each, unless you want to be really pedantic as Liang has a 41-40 frame advantage. Judd hasn’t been firing on all cylinders consistently now for a while and there seems to be an element of ‘demons’ with him these past few seasons at times. For me he sometimes tends to overthink the situation rather than play the free-flowing snooker we associate him with, there are signs that the weight of expectation that is routinely placed on him and the tag that some lay at his doorstep of a serial underachiever are beginning to niggle. All too often recently he’s started matches and tournaments in blistering form only for a couple of things to go wrong and the whole mood turn. It’s never nice when the snooker demons start whispering to you in the middle of a match and I suspect that Judd probably needs to work on coping mechanisms for this as he does seem to go into a bit of a sulk sometimes, which doubtless also lifts his opponent’s confidence levels to add to the pressure he’s under. All that said however he’s still having a much better season than Liang, who is the extremely fortunate beneficiary of Bingham’s ban and Robbo’s overdue late rally after the cut-off deadline. The Chinese player can count himself very fortunate to be here at all really as the current 18th ranked player in the world and it does beg the question of why the draw couldn’t have waited until after the Scottish Open. I’ve no really strong feelings on this one but I’d guess that Judd will win with a strong start, silencing the inner voices for now at least, I don’t think there is any value backing him in the outright at the moment though as the bookies seem to routinely have him far too short compared to others in much better form.

Prediction: Trump 6-3

Recommended Bet: Over 1 century in the match at 11/10.   

Ronnie – ‘If I win it I ain’t picking no trophy up that ain’t mine to keep’ – isn’t that a double negative?

Ronnie O’Sullivan v Marco Fu (Tuesday January 16 at 1pm)

Enter The Rocket. Ronnie is bidding for a third straight Masters title in a format and a venue that seem to suit him to a T. He’s not far from home, he plays more or less every day and it’s a nice short week for him with him not starting until Tuesday. He also gets to hang out with all his Eurosport chums when he’s not at work so it’s win win for him every time he comes here to put on a show. I’m not alone in thinking that he even managed to win this last year with his B game, he should have gone out on Day 1 but didn’t and from then on grew as the week went on and who is to say the same won’t happen again this week? I remember when ‘old Ronnie’ used to go into Head Fry Mode against a robotic Marco, but since he’s come out the other side with prototype two he just doesn’t lose to him. It’s almost a decade since the Hong Kong man got the upper hand so there is very little reason to suspect anything other than a comfortable win for O’Sullivan here. Oh yes, by the way, he’s also said that if he wins the Masters this year he isn’t going to pick up the trophy unless he is assured it is his to keep. This is the latest gambit in an ongoing dispute between himself and the governing body regarding silver/glassware, or in Ronnie’s view, the lack of it coming his way after he’s earned it. The powers that be may be hoping that he’s not quite himself on the table this year to avoid any potential embarrassment next Sunday evening.

Prediction: O’Sullivan 6-2

Recommended Bet: O’Sullivan (-2.5 frames) at 9/10.

Barry Hawkins v Kyren Wilson (Tuesday January 16 at 7pm)

These two meet in a big event for the first time, having spent the last few years bouncing around in best of seven events all over the tour, with Hawkins gaining an impressive lead in the head to heads as a result. It’s fair to say that both of them come into this in need of a confidence boost. Kyren has reached two finals this season but hasn’t really troubled the business end of events since October and failed to qualify for the German Masters in Berlin just before the break. Barry managed to get two much needed wins under his belt in that after a hugely disappointing UK Championship, losing 6-0 to Akani and he’s not fared well against the really top players all season. I wonder whether the manner of his crushing defeat to John Higgins in the Sheffield semi-final might have got to him a bit more than it would normally and has been carried over mentally into the new season, these things can play on your mind if you let them. Of course it may be something unrelated to matters on the table that’s stopped Barry being the player we all know he is so far this season. I’d not have a lot of confidence in either of them with a bet and given they could both really do with a kick start to 2018 to turn their seasons around I’d imagine that this one could get a bit twitchy and perhaps a bit scrappy too, which usually means the winning line is harder to fall over, I’d say the winner will have a very tough time in their second round match regardless of all outcomes.

Prediction: Wilson 6-5

Recommended Bet: Over 9 frames in the match at 11/10.       

Shaun Murphy v Ali Carter (Wednesday January 17 at 1pm)

Two experienced sparring partners go head to head in their latest big stage battle with Murphy coming into this in far better form than his opponent. These two have had some cracking battles over the years and perhaps surprisingly for some, it’s Carter who holds the upper hand, having also won their previous meeting in November 6-2 over in China. Murphy’s Champion of Champions final win over O’Sullivan and his subsequent run to the final of the UK to play Ronnie again means he comes into this full of confidence, probably feeling with some justification that he’s currently The Rocket’s closest challenger. He also qualified with ease for Berlin just before Christmas. Carter’s results of late have been quite the opposite, beaten by lower ranked players for much of November and December and failing to make it to Berlin, he’s another in need of a run in something having only made one semi-final this season way back in August. On form, you’d have to plump for Murphy, but these two tend to slog it out and for me this is very much a punch for punch on the day call. As ever when they meet, this is very difficult to predict and you might be best having a look at the breaks markets instead, over this distance and given their prowess for dishing up I’d expect a couple of tons to fly in assuming it’s not a walkover one way or the other.

Prediction: Murphy 6-4

Recommended Bet: More than one century in the match at 13/8.       

John Higgins v Anthony McGill (Wednesday January 17 at 7pm)

I’ve no idea how this opinion would stand up to any scrutiny but isn’t it odd how we always seem to have the obligatory ‘all Scottish clash’ whenever there is a random draw? This time, the only two Scottish players in the top 16 meet each other first round. The head to heads tell us very little and as you’d expect Higgins holds the lead, with their last meeting being a whitewash in the first round of the Champion of Champions (again a random draw) which followed a comfortable victory for Jock the Elder in the final of the Indian Open. McGill has done enough to stay in the top 16 but hasn’t really done a lot more than that this season, barring that final appearance from a depleted field in India and you do feel that at some point he needs to step up the pace a bit to justify his lofty seeding following his Shootout win and subsequent elevation into the top 16 last season. I noticed that he said he hadn’t been practicing over Christmas following his defeat to Jimmy White in the German Masters qualifiers and chose as a result not to play in the Championship League early groups to sharpen up for this. Whether this approach works for him I don’t know but I suspect he’s going to have to be somewhere near his best to compete here against a player who he still seems a little in awe of.

Prediction: Higgins 6-2

Recommended Bet: Higgins (-1.5 frames) at 4/7.

I’ll not be putting up an acca as I think far too many of these matches are a coin toss, in terms of doubling up the recommended singles above I’d say my most confident four would be the Higgins one, the Williams/Selby one, the Hawkins/Wilson one and the Murphy/Carter one. So any combination of those in doubles and trebles is where I’ll be going. Or you could just back all the scorelines and see how it goes.

In the outright I can’t see any value out there really, Higgins at 9/1 perhaps but I’ve had ante-post bets on Brecel at 80/1 and Williams at 66/1, both significantly shorter now so not going to add to that.

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