Before every snooker tournament, Paul Krishnamurty provides his staking plan, which involves picking one player from each section of the draw. Here's his verdict on the highlight of the calendar, the Betfair World Championship, which starts on Saturday...
"Nobody has been more consistent than Robertson this year...he looked set to challenge for a second title 12 months ago, before losing to a peak-form O'Sullivan in a quarter-final that many regarded as the real final."
This first section of the draw for the Betfair World Championship contains both of last year's finalists, plus the man who won three of the previous five renewals. If seedings go to plan, Ronnie O'Sullivan will face fellow four-time winner John Higgins in the quarter-final, but despite doubts about his lack of competitive snooker, I'm much more confident about the former reaching that stage than the latter.
Higgins is still potentially the best match player in the business, as illustrated by his early season form, but hasn't been potting long balls. He normally takes time to find his rhythm in a tournament and both Mark Davis and probable next opponent Stuart Bingham are both well up to testing him.
All of which is good news for Ronnie, whom I'm expecting to turn up well-prepared. Ronnie's natural talent should swiftly blow away any cobwebs and if he's even at 80% of his best, Higgins is the only player in this section realistically capable of stopping him before the semis. Marcus Campbell should be easily swept aside and, while 2012 runner-up Ali Carter looks dangerous on paper, their head-to-head to record suggests otherwise. In their last 15 encounters, Ronnie's only defeat came in the relatively meaningless best-of-five formatted Championship League.
After backing the favourite in the first quarter, a rank outsider here balances the book. Only two players in this section begin the tournament shorter than 50.049/1 and neither Judd Trump or Shaun Murphy are particularly reliable. I've successfully opposed Trump in every tournament this year and have no intention to abandon that strategy. He'll win a world title one day for sure, but right now, the 'Juddernaut' still plays like a novice and lacks a 'Plan B' for when the long pots don't deliver chances. Assuming he gets past Dominic Dale, Trump could be a good odds-on lay against the winner between Matthew Stevens and Marco Fu.
Murphy meanwhile has drawn arguably the strongest qualifier in Martin Gould. While the 2005 champion has won all six of their previous encounters, four of those matches were close and Gould has improved. The reigning Betfair Snooker Shootout champion has struck me as the type to surprise one day at the Crucible ever since Neil Robertson pulled off a miraculous comeback in their 2010 second round match here. If Gould can upset the odds against Murphy, I'd make him favourite against either Graeme Dott or Peter Ebdon in the next round.
Nobody has been more consistent than Robertson this year and, if it wasn't for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory several times, the 2010 champion would likely head to Sheffield as a standout favourite at much shorter odds. He looked set to challenge for a second title 12 months ago, before losing to a peak-form O'Sullivan in a quarter-final that many regarded as the real final. None of Robert Milkins, Ricky Walden or Michael Holt look remotely capable of stopping him reach at least the same stage.
That stage could get tricky if the seedings go to plan and Robertson faces Welsh Open champion Stephen Maguire, although our man would still be favourite. In order to get there, though, Maguire will need to eliminate twice former champion Mark Williams, which may turn out less straightforward than recent form would suggest. Williams will know next season's revamped qualification system means this could plausibly be his last Crucible appearance and could well find some form.
If there's a 'Group of Death', this quarter is it. Mark Selby, Ding Junhui and Mark Allen are all frontline candidates for the title, yet only one can reach the semis. My money has been on Allen for months and nothing has dented my confidence. Allen's snooker since the turn of the year has been consistently top-class and with a little luck at crucial times, could have delivered multiple titles, as opposed to just a successful defence of his World Open title. As explained in greater detail here, Allen has already proved his mettle at this venue and is a better player now.
That isn't to question the claims of either Selby or Ding. The latter will surely beat Alan McManus in his opener to set up what could be a classic encounter with Allen. One word of caution regarding Selby, however, is a habit of making hard work for himself. His route contains two of the most capable qualifiers, Matthew Selt and Jack Lisowski, so don't rule out an early upset.