Paul Krishnamurty kicks off our comprehensive Masters coverage with his outright preview. You can follow every shot on Betfair Live Video and check out our daily tips...
"Murphy started turning his season around here last year and ended up in a world final...One good performance in the first round and the odds will collapse."
The second leg of snooker's triple-crown is arguably the hardest to win. Why? Because, with the field restricted to the world's top-16, it represents the strongest last-16 of any event on the calendar. Theoretically, at least.
Far be it for me to pour cold water on such a mouthwatering event, but this year's line-up is not the world's best 16 players. It is at least unfortunate, and actually grossly unfair that Luca Brecel misses out despite winning the Scottish Open and finishing runner-up at the UK Championship, simply because the draw was made before he was elevated to the top-16. Plus, while the numbers don't back me up, I'm simply not having any list of 16 that doesn't involve David Gilbert.
Another year for outsiders?
The tournament's long reputation for producing predictable, elite winners has also diminished in the last two years. In 2020, Stuart Bingham turned around a terrible Masters record to defeat late entrant and rank outsider Ali Carter in the final. Last year all four semi-finalists had upset the odds in their quarter to reach there, and champion Yan Bingtao started the event as an outsider. The 2018 final, between Mark Allen and Kyren Wilson, wasn't obvious beforehand either.
This year's renewal again looks wide-open. Judd Trump predictably starting favourite, but is that correct, given his ongoing disappointing record in major championships? Fresh off victory in the World Grand Prix, Ronnie O'Sullivan has strong claims to extend his record of seven Masters titles, but the Rocket hadn't won for 15 months previously. Given that Yan Bingtao and Zhao Xintong won two of the three majors in 2021, should we now be focused on the emerging generation of Chinese stars?
Higgins overpriced on 2021 form
Both Bingtao and Xintong are pitched in a fascinating top quarter, along with old-timers John Higgins and Mark Williams. At odds of 14.013/1, I'm very tempted by Higgins, whose overall standard has clearly been the best of that quartet, and these odds don't reflect it.
The negative is a relatively weak Masters record. Last year's run to the final his first since last winning the title in 2006 and only his fourth semi-final appearance in that period. He had become predictably slow to find his form in the New Year but a warm-up at the Championship League did the trick. His absence from last week's event in Leicester is therefore notable.
However, having lost to Xintong in the UK, I do expect Higgins to arrive fully tuned up. Generally, he's very effective against the talented youngsters, employing all his famed matchplay prowess. He's beaten Bingtao all three times since the reverse in last year's final and I expect a repeat in these quarter-finals after the youngster dispatches Williams.
Robertson to gain swift revenge over O'Sullivan
The betting firmly points to a repeat of the World Grand Prix final in the second quarter-final, in which O'Sullivan beat Neil Robertson 10-8. Respectively, they face Jack Lisowski and Anthony McGill first. Capable, yet clearly inferior opponents, as respective head-to-heads of 3-0 and 5-1 demonstrate.
Ronnie's head-to-head against Robertson to 18-9 but, whilst I am always extremely wary of ignoring such stats, prior to that win, I'd have definitely said Robertson has the edge nowadays.
Taking out a first-round humiliation at the UK by amateur John Astley, there's a great deal to like about Robertson's form this term. Prior to that narrow defeat in the final, the Aussie had put a string of big breaks together to beat Selby in semi and Bingtao in the quarters. He won the English Open and lost in the Champion of Champions to a very high-class Kyren Wilson performance. Ten years after his first Masters win, it is high time for a second.
Kyren worth another chance in a major
Trump's performance in majors is even more surprisingly disappointing. Last year he withdrew on the eve of the Masters with Covid. Unfortunate in that particular case but there are plenty of reasons to oppose him here as 5.14/1 favourite. Not least a brutal draw.
He isn't playing terribly but evidently Trump hasn't been quite at his imperious best this term, besides the Champion of Champions. He ended the year with defeats to Matt Selt in the UK, Gilbert in the Scottish Open and Tom Ford at the World Grand Prix.
All easier matches on paper than he'll face here. To start, Judd faces a player whom he actually trails in the head-to-heads. Mark Allen leads 11-9 throughout their careers. Afterwards, he'll face one of last week's Championship League finalists - Kyren Wilson or Stuart Bingham.
Forgive the repetition, regular readers, growing sick of following Kyren. I remain adamant he will win a major. He did nothing wrong at the UK, deservedly beating Ronnie in the quarters before running into Brecel in unstoppable form in the semis. I'll take him over Bingham in this tough section, who is nonetheless respected and fair value at 33/1.
Selby no cert in weak quarter
If there's a weak quarter, the bottom one could be it. Mark Selby is hot favourite but that is based on his ranking and majors pedigree rather than this season's form. He's yet to reach a final.
Granted, his first round opponent is also having a shocker. However I am loathe to ever write off the ultra-talented, ever frustating, Stephen Maguire and he has won four of his last six matches against the 'Jester from Leicester'. An 8-10 head-to-head deficit over their careers is no disgrace either.
Murphy fair value to turn poor season around
The other pair are Shaun Murphy and Barry Hawkins, between whom the head-to-head feels significant. Hawkins, who has been far superior this term, trails 3-11. Murphy started turning his season around here last year and ended up in a world final. 42.041/1 about a player of his calibre appeals as a speculative punt. One good performance in the first round and the odds will collapse. The same could be said about Maguire at 95.094/1.
Follow Paul on Twitter @paulmotty
2021/22: -12.1 units
2020/21: -21.6 units
2019/20: +6 units
2018/19: +154.5 units
2017/18: +106 units
Get a Free £10 Bet - Every Day!
From January 7-13, we are Doubling our Daily Rewards! Stake £20 on Multiples or Bet Builders over the course of a day, and, after the bets have settled, you'll get a free £10 bet to use on Multiples or Bet Builders. Bets must settle within 48 hours. No opt-in required, T&Cs apply