Paul Krishnamurty previews the opening ranking event of the new snooker season, which we'll be covering throughout on Betfair Live Video...
"This could well be the season when Zhao Xintong breaks through. He may have more potential than either Yuelong or Yan Bingtao."
The 2020/21 snooker season begun last week with the first few groups of the Championship League and tomorrow we've got the opening ranking event - the European Masters. The first four events are all played at the same Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes.
All the top-16 players line up and we start from the last-128. In the past, the big names tended to ease themselves in after a lengthy break but it has only been a month since the World Championship.
Nevertheless, this isn't one of the season's most prestigious events and perhaps an ideal target for up and comers, or established players in need of a breakthrough. That's the basic mindset behind my relatively cheap staking plan.
Neil Robertson is the defending champion and he's been handed a nice draw, with Ronnie O'Sullivan and Judd Trump both in the other half. The top section also includes Shaun Murphy, Stephen Maguire and Barry Hawkins.
Outsiders preferred in tricky section
All plausible with Murphy most tempting, but he's got a horrible opener against Liang Wenbo. Instead I'll try a couple of cheap each-way pokes.
Zhou Yuelong reached a ranking final last term, and won his group last week in the Championship League. He's moving steadily forward and pretty reliable in the early rounds.
Elliot Slessor made some very encouraging comments during lockdown, about suddenly rediscovering his purpose and commitment to the game. He went to impress in Crucible qualifying so hopefully there's more to come.
Allen to find form in Milton Keynes again
Quarter two is headed by Mark Selby, whose Crucible efforts could be described as resurgent, having headed into the event under a cloud and struggled early on. That isn't enough for me to back him shorter and therefore less suitable events though.
Mark Allen has a very easy early draw, offering a chance to build form. He was very impressive at this venue en route to the Tour Championship final.
This could well be the season when Zhao Xintong breaks through. He may have more potential than either Yuelong or Yan Bingtao, but is more erratic. There's a long run in a tournament in him so why not now, at this level, fresh off winning his Championship League group?
Trump taken on
Judd Trump was thoroughly unconvincing after lockdown and will not be attracting my cash at short odds until back to his previous world-beating form. I think he could be vulnerable against either selection, both of whom are still seeking their first win.
Lisowski's easy early draw is a big positive and he wouldn't fear his world number one mate were they to meet in the last-16. Likewise Gilbert has a respectable record against Trump and he's another arriving off a win in the Championship League.
Other notables here are Crucible nearly-men Kyren Wilson and Anthony McGill.
O'Sullivan starts favourite for me, but there's too much guesswork to consider backing him at short odds. You never know how he'll approach lesser events and there are potential banana-skins from the outset.
Donaldson positioned for another long run
Again I'm trying a couple of potential first-time winners. Gary Wilson produced some outstanding snooker at times last term, but kept finding one too good or throwing in an untimely bad performance. His time will come.
Scott Donaldson has developed into an excellent match-player, as evidenced by five semi-final appearances. He's rated third likeliest to reach the quarter-finals in a mini-section led by the unreliable John Higgins and Mark Williams.
Follow Paul on Twitter @paulmotty
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