Players Championship Snooker 2018: One player to back from each quarter
The leading 16 earners over the past year line up in Llandudno in pursuit of a £125,000 first prize at the Players Championship, which starts tonight. Check out Paul Krishnamurty's preview here...
The headline story of this snooker season has definitely been the resurgence of Ronnie O'Sullivan and the emphatic restatement of his superiority over several generations of players. However as the Rocket has swerved a couple of lesser events over the past fortnight, a rival for player of the year has emerged.
Until last August, Ryan Day had precisely zero ranking titles to show for two decades on the professional circuit. Now he has three. Winning this week's Players Championship and extending what is now an 11-match unbeaten run would dwarf those previous achievements but the Welshman is the form man and would not have to meet Ronnie in the final.
Back Ronnie O'Sullivan 10u @ [3.25]
Given the draw, trying to manufacture an argument against O'Sullivan seems futile. There is simply nobody in his half of the draw whose form has been in the same league. He's got arguably the easiest first round opponent in Graeme Dott and will be a red-hot favourite against any quarter or semi-final opponent. Mark Allen and Ding Junhui are, of course, potential champions too but certainly inferior, especially on the most recent evidence.
Ronnie showed some of his best ever form - which we know to be an unbeatable standard - to land the World Grand Prix and started his Welsh Open bid in similar fashion before running into John Higgins. That looks the likeliest final and, if it materialises, the similarly resurgent Wizard of Wishaw will warrant the utmost respect. Until then though, there is nobody of that pedigree to worry about.
Apologies for what must seem like endless repetition but this quarter is all about taking on the over-rated Judd Trump. It seems as if almost every week, he loses to a solid top-16 player of around the same standard, then starts half their odds for the next event. Here at least Trump's first round opponent is one he's beaten four times in a row but Maguire has been in at least good form, especially in the big events.
Neil Robertson also appeals somewhat at around 12/1, with only the struggling Luca Brecel to worry about. However at three times the odds Maguire - well capable of beating anyone at his best - must be the bet. He'll probably lose to Ronnie yet again if reaching the semis, as in Preston and York, but we'd be on a cracking value bet if he just gets that far.
Higgins has another obvious chance here and is expected to progress past Anthony McGill again first up. Again with value in mind, though, I'm prepared to take him on. Three-times a runner-up this season, Kyren Wilson has repeatedly upset longer established names and this draw may work to his advantage.
The key is Shaun Murphy, who has been struggling with back and neck injuries, and was even doubtful to appear in Llandudno. On the basis of his overall form, Murphy would have been my top pick in the bottom half of the draw but must be swerved while this cloud hangs over him. One would expect he hasn't been practising much and that is usually fatal at this level.
Whereas the other three sections all involve an obviously weak link or value angle, this bottom quarter is brutal. It includes world champion Mark Selby, one of the players of the season in Mark Williams and the bang-in-form Day. I'm taking them all on with brilliant Bingtao.
Any of that quartet can win this title, which for me makes the biggest priced the best one to focus upon. To reiterate a point made several times this season, Bingtao is inevitably going to win his first title soon and has absolutely nobody to fear. Even Ronnie has failed to dominate the 18 year-old, winning only 4-3 in Preston after losing their penultimate clash 6-1.
Back Ronnie O'Sullivan 10u @ [3.25]
Back Stephen Maguire 1u e/w @ 30/1
Back Kyren Wilson 1u e/w @ 33/1
Back Yan Bingtao 1.5u e/w @ 25/1