Every year I sit down on the Thursday before it all starts and wonder how to build up the anticipation with a cutting and straight to the point opening paragraph, but no matter what I say on here it’s always just leading up to one thing; the best 17 days of the year for snooker fans, like Christmas and all your birthdays all rolled into one. Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s Crucible time.
After all the drama of the qualifiers we have just two days to catch our collective breath before the Crucible wall descends from the rafters and the opening click of the balls signals the start of another epic 17 days of drama.
World Numero Uno Mark Selby returns to defend the title he won for the second time 12 months ago, this time without the burden of the Crucible Curse on his shoulders, though of course he’s not done himself any favours in the curse department by winning the China Open; nobody has ever done that and won this too, so immediately the Snooker Gods are frowning upon him from the Great Billiard Hall in The Sky.
This year also heralds the 40th year at this great venue, the BBC might mention it a couple of times. In 1977, John Spencer lifted the trophy for the first time here and ever since then Sheffield has become known globally as the home of snooker. Down the years The Crucible has witnessed some of the iconic sporting moments in history, the birth of televised snooker through the Davis years, Cliff’s 147, Alex begging for his baby, Hendry’s annual battles with Jimmy, Ronnie’s fastest maximum, Ebdon’s 12 break and that bloke with the glasses shaking his finger.
I am heading there for the media day on Crucible Eve and as usual staying for the first round before heading back to watch the action like most other people from the comfort of my own sofa arsedent in the company of the usual band of commentators and pundits on both the BBC and Eurosport, as well as our three dogs and that person that lives with me who occasionally rather annoyingly asks me to move my feet to hoover under them, usually at a crucial point in the frame.
I think this year it’s actually justifiable to say it’s the most open championship we have seen in years. I don’t quite know how you quantify that with any hard data but it just feels like this year there are a multitude of possible outcomes, perhaps because it’s now clear that Ronnie O’Sullivan is not well ahead of the rest of the field on his day, if anything the one player who stands out these days is undoubtedly Selby, who has now finished World Number 1 for the past 6 seasons, just two short of the all time record holder Hendry.
The bookies have Selby and the in-form Judd Trump vying for favouritism just ahead of O’Sullivan, with a lot of fancy prices available on the others. If you want to see how favourites have fared over the years, take a look at this.
Anyway, that’s enough of my waffling on, here goes nothing as I take a look at each match individually and gaze into my increasingly misty crystal ball in the hope that I can forsee what might happen. Whether you have a bet or not, just enjoy the tournament. I’ll be spouting my usual nonsense on Twitter if you’d care to follow me on there during it, apologies if you do already, I’ll grow up one day I promise.
Right, here we go.
Click on the match for the head to head record courtesy of Cue Tracker.
QUARTER ONE – all played on Table 1
Mark Selby (1) v Fergal O’Brien (Saturday 10am & 7pm)
The defending champion is up against The Ferginator who smashed all records in Ponds Forge by competing in and winning a deciding frame which lasted over two hours, longer in fact than the world record for running a marathon. His reward is a match on the opening day after presumably, not having had a great deal of sleep. There are plenty that will look at this match up with sleep uppermost in their mind but that does Selby an injustice as I think he’s a great player to watch. It’s been over a decade since O’Brien got the better of The Jester and I think the champion will be quite happy with this first round draw, I can see him bossing this from the off and winning with a bit in hand to start off his defence impressively.
Prediction: Selby 10-4.
Ryan Day (16) v Xiao Guodong (Wednesday 10am & 7pm)
Ryan Day was one match away from the qualifiers this season as he watched his friend Mark Williams try in vain to win the China Open, him losing in the final secured Day’s place back in the top 16. He’s drawn one of the three Chinese qualifiers Guodong, who he has beaten on their only meaningful meeting to date over in Germany. Xiao is no mug and impressed in the qualifiers, particularly against Mark King, losing just 8 frames in his three matches, he’s also been here before, losing narrowly to Ali Carter on that occasion so he’s unlikely to let the venue get to him. Day has produced some of his best snooker here and The Crucible seems to bring out the best in him so that makes this quite a difficult one to call, as I’d say Guodong is probably one he’d have wanted to avoid.
Prediction: Guodong 10-8.
Neil Robertson (9) v Noppon Saengkham (Wednesday 2.30pm & Thursday 2.30pm)
Robbo faces the first debutant of the preview, Thailand’s Noppon Saengkham who actually beat Neil on their most recent meeting. Our Noppy came through two gruelling matches in the qualifiers, a late night decider against Anthony Hamilton followed by a 10-8 win over Lee Walker from behind so he’s proved that he can scrap it out. That win over Neil is something of an exception really as Noppon seems to have a ‘level’, he beats and gets beaten by players ranked similarly to him but seldom beats top 16 players. That and the fact he’ll likely take a few frames to get used to the surroundings by which time Neil might have established an unassailable lead makes Robbo a good thing to progress in my opinion. I know that he’s been focusing fully on Sheffield for the last month and he’s determined to re-establish himself at the top of the game.
Prediction: Robertson 10-4.
Marco Fu (8) v Luca Brecel (Sunday 7pm & Monday 7pm)
Luca returns to the Crucible after a five year absence, his lovely smile in tact just for Dennis to admire. After beating Dom Dale in the qualifiers he calmly said that he’d ‘fully expected to win quite easily’, with no hint that he might have been being ironic. He’s a bit like an assassin who offers you a cup of tea and a piece of cake before blowing your brains out is Luca, calm and mellow on the outside but a fierce, cocky, competitive little sod on the inside. Marco comes into this on the back of a great season buoyed by his run to the semi-finals here last year, he has also never lost to his opponent in four meetings. Luca claims that he is going there to win this year, a bold prediction, one that I think he might have to reassess after this match.
Prediction: Fu 10-8.
QUARTER TWO – all played on Table 1
Shaun Murphy (5) v Yan Bingtao (Sunday 10am & Monday 2.30pm)
I remember Shaun getting a little bit upset when the BBC website decided to run with ‘Shaun Murphy beaten by Chinese Schoolboy’ as a headline after he lost to Bingtao in the 2015 Champion of Champions, since then he got his revenge in a decider in China only to be beaten again by him in the recent German Masters, when thankfully the BBC decided to reel it in a bit, possibly because Yan had left school in the intervening years. Bingtao is obviously a huge talent, I’d like to see his passport though as he looks a lot older than 17, but that aside this is a very tough draw for both of them. In Shaun’s favour is the venue, it’s very rare that any player coming here for the first time feels instantly at ease and I think Shaun will be keen to stamp his authority on the match from the off in the knowledge that once Bingtao does get used to it, he’s going to need a cushion of a few frames, that’s the way I see this match going, Murphy going ahead early then keeping his opponent at arms length.
Prediction: Murphy 10-8.
Ronnie O’Sullivan (12) v Gary Wilson (Saturday 2.30pm & Sunday 2.30pm)
Ronnie seems more bothered about the impending war between the USA and Russia at the moment than the fact he’s playing in Sheffield at the weekend, what strange priorities some people have? Perhaps it’s a sign that his state of mind isn’t quite right or perhaps he’s fooling around with us all. Bazza has been trying to wind him up by telling him to grow up and start talking to the media properly, we’ll wait and see is he heeds this fatherly advice. He faces another debutant in Gary Wilson, fresh from really impressing at Ponds Forge including of course his maximum break. Again though the advantage is heavily with O’Sullivan with Gary never having played here before, Ronnie also, relatively speaking comes here a little ‘under the radar’ with not that many people tipping him for the title, I’m not either but I don’t expect him to lose here.
Prediction: O’Sullivan 10-5.
Liang Wenbo (13) v Stuart Carrington (Tuesday 10am & 7pm)
Stuart Carrington is the man responsible for Mark Williams not being here and he lines up at The Crucible for the second time in his career having lost to Judd Trump in 2015 to face Liang Wenbo. Carrington has had an average season and again he is another player who doesn’t usually trouble top 16 players as a habit. Liang of course won his first ever ranking event this season following on from his runners-up spot in the UK in the previous one and he is now definitely finding his feet in the elite ranks. He actually comes here on a bit of a losing streak but I don’t think he’ll be unhappy with his draw and I think his scoring should be enough to come through quite easily.
Prediction: Liang 10-5.
Ding Junhui (4) v Zhou Yuelong (Monday 10am & Tuesday 2.30pm)
The all-Chinese clash sees the greatest they have ever produced against one of the new crop who Dennis likes to call Ghou Yolonge. Ghou is a cracking talent and proved his pedigree by beating Ben Woollaston in a decider to get here. He’s met Ding twice but from 12 frames has only won one of them so there may be a little bit of hero worship to get over here as well as the fact that again, he has never played here before. In contrast to Bingtao, Ghou looks younger than his 19 years (maybe they switched passports) but he’s still learning the ropes nevertheless and he is one I am sure we’ll see a lot of in the future under the guidance of the lovely Victoria in Sheffield. But in terms of this match I think it’s a case of teacher and pupil for now.
Prediction: Ding 10-4.
QUARTER THREE – all played on Table 2
Stuart Bingham (3) v Peter Ebdon (Sunday 2.30pm & Monday 10am)
This is more like it, a good old fashioned old-school grapple for Sunday afternoon viewers who don’t want to watch Ronnie. Ex-Champ Ballrun was the latest victim of The Crucible Curse last year and after his heroics of the previous year we hardly noticed he was there last time after his opening day defeat by Ali Carter. Ebdon did as only Ebdon can do in the qualifiers, the way he beat Michael Holt 10-9 on the final black was of a like I have never seen, how he managed to claw it back the way he did and hold himself together at the end I don’t know and there remains something other-worldly about him at times. They have met at this stage once before in 2011 when Bingham won 10-8 and I reckon we might see history repeat itself here.
Prediction: Bingham 10-8.
Kyren Wilson (14) v David Grace (Saturday 2.30pm & Sunday 10am)
They will have to make a higher entrance at The Crucible this year to accommodate snooker’s tallest player, David Grace, a giant from Leeds. Gracey steps out onto snooker’s hallowed turf in what he describes as his ‘dream come true’ to face Kyren first up. Kyren hasn’t had a great season but showed signs recently that he might be coming back to form in China. David actually holds a favourable advantage in the head to heads but they’ve all been in minor best of 7 frame events so this is new territory for them both. Again, the debutant factor might be a deciding factor here but I actually have a feeling that Grace will adapt to this fairly well, he also won’t be short of vocal support. I think this might end up being the shock/story of the round.
Prediction: Grace 10-8.
Mark Allen (11) v Jimmy Robertson (Sunday 7pm & Monday 7pm)
Mark Allen’s recent record at The Crucible hasn’t been great and here he faces the dangerous Essex man Jimmy Robertson who will be hoping to make it third time lucky having been here twice and lost. Jimmy had a tough path through the qualifiers and coped well with the style of Rod Lawler to get here, I think he’ll be a tough draw for Allen and any hint that Mark might be suffering his Crucible jitters will be an opening for him. It could be one of the ties of the round this one and I’ll take Allen to nick it in the pressure cooker decider.
Prediction: Allen 10-9.
John Higgins (6) v Martin Gould (Monday 2.30pm & Tuesday 10am)
Four times champion Higgins has gone a bit quiet since his incredible winning streak earlier in the season. Since then, for reasons only known to him, he decided to change his cue, he’s subsequently failed to reach the last 8 of anything since December. Gould had a run to the semi-finals of the German Masters but aside from that he’s had a pretty average season by his standards, but qualified in solid form and remains a superb ‘single ball potter’ whatever that means. Every year he plays here Gould is reminded of ‘that match’ against Neil Robertson but he’s also played some great stuff here and even claimed that he now uses the experience as a positive (his nose grew when he said it to be fair) as it made him a better player, but I think again this one might go against the seeded player.
Prediction: Gould 10-7.
QUARTER FOUR – all played on Table 2
Barry Hawkins (7) v Tom Ford (Wednesday 7pm & Thursday 7pm)
Tom Ford was a right old misery when he got through, you’d think someone had just sent him an inflated tax bill the way he came across in the interview, perhaps he was remembering his previous Crucible appearances and wondering if he could be bothered putting himself through it again, who knows. He’s not been here since 2014 when he was beaten in Round 1 by Judd and here he faces someone who seems to save his best snooker for here in Hawkins. I think this quarter will produce the finalist from the bottom half and Hawkins who is becoming something of a Crucible specialist must be included in anyone’s calculations, I expect him to win here with a bit in hand.
Prediction: Hawkins 10-5.
Ali Carter (10) v Graeme Dott (Tuesday 7pm & Wednesday 2.30pm)
It’s a tough draw for both players this and Ali will know from the off that he’s got a match on with the former champion. Dotty the Terrier has been hibernating all season and has all of a sudden come to life for this, where he undoubtedly produces his best snooker. Ali has been consistent winning the World Open earlier in the season and making the business end of a few events. These two had an epic battle here in 2011 which I was lucky enough to watch live, it basically hinged on a double that Dott played in the frame he clinched victory 13-11 and these two remain as evenly matched a pair as any in the game, despite Graeme’s fall in the rankings. If someone asked me if one match were to go to a decider which would it be, this would be my immediate pick.
Prediction: Carter 10-9.
Anthony McGill (15) v Stephen Maguire (Saturday 10am & 7pm)
Is it just me or is there an all Scottish clash every year in Round 1? It’s like the Scottish balls in the draw are covered in haggis crumbs or something but once again it’s a North of the Border derby with the seeded player being not how it has looked in the past. Mags will have been watching the draw, if he was awake, through a steaming hangover after claiming on Wednesday that he was going out to get drunk and I can only imagine the expletives that came from his mouth when he saw when he had to play. McGill would more likely have been sitting with a cup of hot soya milk in his jimjams such is the difference between the two. Maguire is the toughest draw of the lot for a seed and I think he’ll quite like coming here as a non-seeded player, McGill may end up as the fallen rather than the giant killer this year.
Prediction: Maguire 10-6.
Judd Trump (2) v Rory McLeod (Tuesday 2.30pm & Wednesday 10am)
Does everyone know the story of the tortoise and the hare? Well in that story the hare (Judd) races off and thinks he’s got the race won before he gets distracted and then the tortoise (Rory) plods past to beat him. Oh and that old phrase, ‘it’s a marathon not a sprint’ or ‘slow and steady wins the race’. Well you know what? They are a load of old cobblers. Judd is in fine fettle and Rory didn’t really impress me at all in the qualifiers. This is the Acca Ruiner to beat all other Acca Ruiners if those old stories and phrases end up being a spooky snooker prophecy. This particular hare ain’t getting beat by no tortoise, no sir, it’s Judd all the way in this one.
Prediction: Trump 10-3.
Outrights: Selby 9/2, Ding 14/1, Hawkins 18/1 (previously backed at 25/1), Bingham 25/1, Fu (previously backed at 40/1, but no further bet recommended, price now too short), Carter 50/1 (previously backed at 80/1).
Round 1 Acca pays over 5/1 on Selby (-2.5 frames), Murphy, Bingham, Ding, Liang, Trump (-3.5 frames) and Neil Robertson (-2.5 frames)
Handicap Treble pays over 6/1 on Grace (+3.5 frames), Gould (+2.5 frames) and Dott (+2.5 frames)
Doubles, Trebles and an Acca: Guodong, Grace, Gould and Maguire, acca pays over 72/1.
Match Centuries Treble at Bet 365: All matches to have more than one century pays 6.35/1 at Bet 365: Selby v Fergal, Fu v Brecel, Murphy v Bingtao. Add Trump v McLeod for an 11.69/1 Acca.
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