You try sometimes to think of a fancy title for a blog post, but sometimes it’s best just to stick with what it is. Never truer in the case of this post, the one I look forward to writing every year, the preview to the best sporting event in the world, yes folks, we’re approaching 17 days of unashamed bliss for snooker fans, as we head to The Crucible for the World Championship.
The past week and a bit at Ponds Forge has come and gone far too quickly for me, even now as I write this I kind of don’t want the World Championship to start because that means it will be over quicker. The first day ignites childhood memories in me like nothing else, sitting on the floor with toast in my mouth gazing up at the opening break-off shot as the Crucible wall is lowered and people start coughing nervously, to think that 30 odd or so years later I can actually be there to witness it still makes me pinch myself to check it’s real.
The qualifiers have been through the mill, some more than others and it’s also amazing for me that two recent Snookerbacker Classic Finalists, Kyren Wilson and Mitchell Mann, are lining up in the last 32 having qualified. There are players who’ve had to go to Ponds Forge who would usually be using the previous couple of weeks to practice, players like Ding Junhui and Ali Carter, who now line up against seeded players. This makes the first round even more exciting, if that were possible.
The BBC will again be on hand to guide us all through the action as if we’ve all just hatched, Dennis will roll out the same old tales about golf and the late, great Fred Davis while Stephen Hendry ignores everything he says. JV will once again attempt to answer the enigma which has flummoxed even the greatest minds since God made Adam out of plastercine, namely, where the cue ball is going. Steve and JP will attempt to fathom out the latest bit of technology that they’ve been lumbered with while Ken giggles at them and Hazel will have her Crucible file with her, the contents of which are tip top secret, Beardy Medal Man will be proudly showing off his shiny object and we’ll all be along for the ride. Bring it on.
So without further ado, let’s have a look at each of the first round matches individually, taking a look at head to heads and what betting markets are out there to get involved in. I hope you enjoy reading what lies beneath. I’m travelling to Sheffield tomorrow so stay tuned on here, on Twitter and on Facebook (Turn Notifications on to receive new blog post alerts) for 17 days of madness.
If you click on the match title you will be led to the head to head record between the two players courtesy of the excellent Cue Tracker website. Here goes……
Stuart Bingham v Ali Carter (Saturday 10am and 7pm)
As curtain raisers go, it really doesn’t get much better than this. 10am on Saturday morning sees the reigning World Champion Bingham taking on Ali Carter, the two have been rivals on the baize since their amateur days. Many will feel that Ali should have won the title before Stuart and of course last year was an unexpected result, but Stuart proved on the biggest stage that he could handle the pressure and he’s been a great ambassador as champion. But can he beat THE CURSE? Plenty have tried and failed to retain the title after they’ve won it for a first time, amongst them the game’s greats, Davis, Hendry, O’Sullivan, Higgins, Williams and last year Selby, only Joe Johnson and Ken Doherty have ever come close and plenty of people compared Stuart’s win with Joe’s in terms of shockability. But what a tough opener this is, Ali looked in great form at Ponds Forge and I don’t think it’s taken a great deal out of him. Like many others, I think The Curse will rear it’s head again and the Snooker Gods will be backing Ali, as I am.
Predicted Winner: Carter 10-7
Recommended Bet: 4 points on Over 1.5 centuries at 11/10. 3 points on Carter at 13/8.
Stephen Maguire v Alan McManus (Saturday 2.30pm and Sunday 2.30pm)
Hoots man! It’s the all Scottish clash that always seems to come up at this time of year as the tartened-up Angular man takes on Mags, who it has to be said has underperformed here the last two years. Alan put in a great display again at Ponds Forge and the manner in which he dispatched of Jimmy Robertson in the final round says to me that he’s very sharp. Maguire squeezed into the top 16 by virtue of a good performance in China but before then he was seen wandering the streets of Glasgow looking for a bulls arse to hit with his shovel. Again here I fancy the qualifier to cause an upset, Mags does hold the head to head advantage but Angles has won three from the last four meetings, Alan is worth a punt in this.
Predicted Winner: McManus 10-8
Recommended Bet: 2 points on McManus at 9/4.
Ricky Walden v Robbie Williams (Sunday 10am and Monday 7pm)
Robbie, like McManus, is unbeaten in three years at Ponds Forge and comes here for the third year on the spin after a largely disappointing season. Ricky has finally started winning again, putting in two final appearances over the last month after spending the rest of the season getting walloped by journeymen. He claims to have gone back to basics with his technique and the rewards are there for all to see. It’s the best time of year to hit form and he’ll have benefited from the time off he’s had since finishing runner-up to Judd in China, he’s usually pretty solid early on and Robbie hasn’t really produced his best here in the previous two years so you have to make the in-form Walden a confident selection.
Predicted Winner: Walden 10-4
John Higgins v Ryan Day (Monday 10am and Tuesday 2.30pm)
These two meet up at The Crucible for the third time with the head to heads at one apiece. Twelve years ago they met at this stage and Higgins won in a decider and there is nothing to suggest anything other than a close one here. Day impressed in the qualifiers and looked solid in closing out his victory over Ken Doherty and while John isn’t quite the force of old he’s still in good shape and will no doubt be looking at this quarter thinking that he has a great chance of winning it. Day is what I’d class in the ‘potential banana skin’ category and probably quite high on the list of qualifiers that you’d rather someone else drew, he’s got some Crucible pedigree so this for me is a very tough call. It’s all about who bosses the match from the start and I suspect if Higgins starts well he won’t be headed.
Predicted Winner: Higgins 10-7
Recommended Bet: 3 points on over 1.5 centuries at 10/11.
Judd Trump v Liang Wenbo (Wednesday 2.30pm and Thursday 2.30pm)
Another qualifier high on the list of ‘one to avoid’ is Wenbo. The sponsors were so confident that he’d qualify that he’s plastered all over the posters at the venue, an odd decision given how unpredictable he can be, but someone obviously knew something. Judd was in dazzling form in China and carried off his long awaited next ranking title in style. This time last year I thought Judd would take all the beating, I flagged him up as the winner and right up to the semi-final stage when he lost to Ballrun I was convinced his name was on the trophy. He’ll be delighted to hear that I don’t think that this year. I hope he wins it one day, he’s too good not to, but I just can’t see it happening this time (remember there is a China Open curse too). But I think he’ll win here, it will be fast and attacking and right up Judd’s street, if it’s a potting competition there is only one winner.
Predicted Winner: Trump 10-6
Martin Gould v Ding Junhui (Wednesday 10am and 7pm)
Poor old Gouldy, grafts all year to get himself into the top 16 and is then handed the prize turd of a draw that is Ding. Some felt that given China’s finest had to qualify, he could be written off this year, but qualify he did without getting out of first gear and I reckon he’s used the qualifiers to sharpen up his match play, after all he’s not done much all season to merit any support. The spotlight has been off him but when he gets to the venue it will be quickly switched on again. Before this draw, I fancied Gould to have a run in this and I still see this one going close, Martin is in great form and playing the best snooker of his life this season, whilst I am sure to the outside world he’ll claim he doesn’t care who he plays, I’ll bet inside that he’s cursing his luck. With match sharpness on his side, I have to side with Ding.
Predicted Winner: Ding 10-8
Mark Williams v Graeme Dott (Sunday 7pm and Monday 2.30pm)
The battle of the world champions. Williams was relying on results to stay in the top 16 and thankfully for him they went his way and he does have a decent head to head record against Graeme. Like Trump’s match this is bound to be an attacking affair and is one that I think will probably be one of the better first round ties in terms of entertainment. Graeme produced the goods at Ponds Forge but did look a little tired afterwards, indeed even beforehand he spoke of what a slog was ahead of him so you could argue that he might not be going into this in the right frame of mind. MJW has had a decent rest and has no doubt been putting the hours in as preparation, I fancy him to ride this one out with a few frames to spare.
Predicted Winner: Williams 10-5
Neil Robertson v Michael Holt (Tuesday 10am and 7pm)
Just as Martin Gould will have uttered something that rhymes with Clucking Bell on hearing the draw, I’d say so too will Michael Holt have. A marathon encounter with Mark King in his final qualifier will no doubt have left him elated to be back for another crack at The Crucible. He’s complained in the past that he has underperformed here and even left his press conference last year shouting ‘oh my god I’m so shit’, but something seems to have clicked with him this season after working with Terry Griffiths and his whole demeanour looks a lot better, he’s even beaten an in-form Ronnie and that takes some bottle. Robbo however is another who will have had a good rest and time to totally focus on this, for me he is the man most likely from this half to be contesting the final, this is perhaps an ideal first match for him as he’ll need to be at his bullying best from the off, if he is, like the Higgins match I’d take him to lead all the way to the end.
Predicted Winner: Robertson 10-6
Shaun Murphy v Anthony McGill (Saturday 2.30pm and Sunday 10am)
The bottom half of the draw opens up with Shaun up against last season’s Quarter Finalist and conqueror of Mark Selby, Scotland’s Anthony McGill. It’s some achievement from Ant to get here again, in the past we’ve seen the surprise packages from one year fade away the next but he’s had good wins to get here, not least over Thepchaiya Un-Nooh in his last match. Murphy will no doubt use the Crucible stage to dress up again, who can forget his Superman style outfit last season? Some cruelly mocked his sartorial elegance but he ended up winning ‘Best Turned Out Potter’ award from the sponsors, he also ended up in the final, beating McGill on the way. This section looks set up for a Murphy v O’Sullivan match up in the Quarter Finals and I don’t think we’ll be seeing a repeat of last year from McGill, Murphy has never lost to him and I don’t see that pattern changing here.
Predicted Winner: Murphy 10-7
Marco Fu v Peter Ebdon (Saturday 10am and 7pm)
As well as Ali and Stuart on the opening day, Marco and Peter will also be playing to a finish. Ebbo has been banging on about how cruel the qualifiers are and claimed that no qualifier could possibly win it as they’d be too tired from Ponds Forge. I think he may have been talking mostly about himself given the huge mental effort he makes when he’s playing. At 9-3 down the other night to Gerard Greene he looked dead and buried, but from somewhere he found the strength and belief to win and now he’s here again, claiming that vegans ‘don’t do tired’. Marco holds the narrowest of advantages in the head to head and their only previous Crucible meeting saw Peter win a semi-final in 2006 in a decider, so all pointers are that this could go very close and produce some late night Day 1 drama, I’m going to side with Marco, but I think this one is a coin toss.
Predicted Winner: Fu 10-9
Recommended Bet: 2 points on over 17 frames in the match at 7/4.
Barry Hawkins v Zhang Anda (Tuesday 7pm and Wednesday 2.30pm)
Another Crucible appearance for Mighty Mouse Zhang Anda, a rather under the radar Chinese player who seems to save his best for the longer format matches, at first sight Hawkins will probably be pleased with his draw but Zhang for me is another banana skin opponent who could just cause an upset if Barry isn’t careful. They have met twice and Barry has won twice, I hope he wins again as I think he’ll prove a test for O’Sullivan in Round 2, I know Ronnie really rates Barry and we’ll get to see if he’s really up to the job if the two progress. No strong feelings on this match other than a fairly workmanlike Hawkins win.
Predicted Winner: Hawkins 10-5
Hard to oppose this year.
Ronnie O’Sullivan v Dave Gilbert (Sunday 2.30pm and Monday 10am)
Make no mistake, this is one of the tougher draws for Ronnie. I’ve been an admirer of Dave Gilbert’s for many years and of late he’s been achieving results that he should probably have achieved a decade ago. I like the way he plays the game and his way around the table, he’ll be a test for Ronnie. The Rocket hasn’t been seen since he lost to Holt in the Grand Prix but was at his majestic best at the Welsh Open. They’ve even shifted a load of comps back to the UK next season to keep him happy, something that he isn’t always in Sheffield. As ever, we’ll know quite quickly how he is feeling, last year I think we all knew he wouldn’t win, the shoe incident and the chalk on the table tomfoolery were clues enough. I think he’ll probably be a different animal this year, he’s been putting in the hours and is obviously the man they all have to better, if he’s on song, who can stop him? Oh yes, and stand by for BBC Gilbert O’Sullivan puns, you have been warned.
Predicted Winner: O’Sullivan 10-4
Mark Allen v Mitchell Mann (Tuesday 2.30pm and Wednesday 10am)
I am over the moon for Mitchell, just two years ago he was runner up in my own tournament before turning professional and now he’s at the game’s biggest stage. His game is very solid with a cue action that does not buckle under pressure, he’s had a few issues with his confidence but thankfully now these appear to be a thing of the past. His draw could have been kinder, though he did say ‘anyone but The Rocket’ after qualifying so at least that’s come true. Allen won his next long awaited ranking title last month after a pretty barren spell by his standards and comes here with his tail up, whilst I think Mitchell will give him a game, he’s probably got enough experience to handle the only debutant in the field this year. But I wish Mitch all the luck in the world.
Predicted Winner: Allen 10-6
Joe Perry v Kyren Wilson (Wednesday 7pm and Thursday 7pm)
Kyren, like Ding and Ali, will have been high on the seeds list of ones to avoid when he qualified. The manner in which he took care of business against a sharp looking Matthew Stevens underlined what a great player he has become these days. Like Mitchell, he also has some SB Classic history and like Mitchell he lost in the final before going professional and now look at him! I suspect that he won’t be too unhappy with this draw and will fancy his chances at a shot against The Gent, he also has a valuable week to recover from the qualifiers so fatigue should not come into play. Joe has produced some of his best snooker here and I’m sure Kyren will not take this task lightly, I think this one could be very close, just on experience of the venue, I think I’d just marginally favour Joe.
Predicted Winner: Perry 10-8
Michael White v Sam Baird (Sunday 7pm and Monday 7pm)
Two heavy scorers who on their day can rattle off frame after frame at a rate of knots, if they are both on their game this could be a real cracker. Michael is another who squeezed in to the top 16 despite a few disappointing recent results and his season so far hasn’t really matched up to the last one. Sam fought off Liam Highfield in a high quality final round qualifier and will come here in confident mood. It’s difficult to know how he’ll play, he’s been here once before and was walloped 10-2 by Stuart Bingham, will he have learnt from that or will it be more of the same again? I’m going to play it safe here and go with the seed, but if Sam turns up it might get edgy this one.
Predicted Winner: White 10-4
Recommended Bet: 2 points on White (-4.5 frames) at 12/5.
Mark Selby v Rob Milkins (Monday 2.30pm and Tuesday 10am)
There will be an increased focus on Mark Selby this year given that he withdrew from the two previous events for personal reasons. If your head isn’t screwed on correctly the last place you want to be playing snooker is at The Crucible, but Selby I’m sure will be able to block out the demons and get on with the job. He’s got a very tough opener against Rob Milkins, the fastest cueman in all of Quedgeley, and Milky knows what it’s like to play and beat one of the big boys in Round 1, having done just that to Neil Robertson a few years back. Selby does hold a decent head to head lead but a lot of their matches have gone very close. I hope Selby is over his personal problems as I want all the top players to be 100% for this, if he isn’t, Milkins will pounce and he’ll be on the first bus outta town.
Predicted Winner: Selby 10-7
RECOMMENDED MULTIPLE AND OUTRIGHT BETS: 3 points each way on Neil Robertson at 6/1. 1 point each way on Ali Carter at 80/1. 2 points on Carter to win Quarter 1 at 8/1.
3 point 1st round acca pays over 11/1 at Ladbrokes on: Walden, Trump, Ding, Mark Williams, Robertson, Murphy, Hawkins, White and Selby.
2 point acca on there to be more than one century in all these matches pays over 17/1 at Bet 365 – Bingham/Carter, Higgins/Day, Gould/Ding, Robertson/Holt, Selby/Milkins.