Northern Ireland Open Snooker: Two players to back from each quarter

Ronnie O'Sullivan is producing his best snooker in years
Ronnie O'Sullivan is producing his best snooker in years
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Having dominated last week's Shanghai Masters, Ronnie O'Sullivan heads home to continue his chase for a £1M bonus in the Home Nations series. The Rocket dominates Paul Krishnamurty's eight-strong staking plan...

"Liang Wenbo is in cracking form and thrived during the last two autumns in big UK events - winning last year's English Open and reaching the 2015 UK final."

Back Liang Wenbo each-way @ 50/1

The next leg on our increasingly non-stop snooker schedule is the second of the new Home Nations series. Having already won the English Open, Ronnie O'Sullivan is on course to land a £1M bonus if he can add this title plus the Scottish and Welsh Opens. After another scintillating display to win the Shanghai Masters, the Rocket is rightly a hot favourite.

Back Yan Bingtao 1u e/w @ 33/1
Back Zhou Yuelong 0.5u e/w @ 125/1

12 months ago, this event produced arguably the biggest upset in snooker history when Mark King landed his first title, 25 years after turning pro. The upshot is that King - 175/1 to retain the title - is top-seeded here and that means an incredibly weak top mini-section. 17 year-old Yan Bingtao and 50/1 chance Ryan Day are the only players trading below 150/1.

It is frustrating to take such short odds about Bingtao, compared to 125/1 when reaching the semis two events ago, but he really does have a great chance of at least reaching the quarters. Besides Day, his toughest potential opponent in the first four rounds may be fellow Chinese teenager Zhou Yuelong - also mentioned more than once in this column as one to follow.

The second eighth, in contrast, is competitive and few make any appeal. Top-rated are Neil Robertson and Barry Hawkins, but neither is producing anything like their best right now. My pick would be another rising youngster Jack Lisowski but, again, his odds are in freefall after reaching the Shanghai semis.

Back Luca Brecel 2u e/w @ 25/1
Back Liang Wenbo 1u e/w @ 50/1

Keeping with this theme of backing players on the up, Brecel and Wenbo are both excellent value at these odds. I must reiterate last week's advice to back the former at big odds for bigger targets later this season. Brecel is a superstar in the making and can hardly be faulted for running into a peak form Judd Trump last week - who he'd whitewashed a few days earlier. His only top grade rival here before the quarters is Mark Allen.

The other mini-section is similarly dominated by just two sub 100/1 chances in Shaun Murphy and Liang Wenbo - both of whom are good value. Having won the Champion of Champions impressively, I'm very surprised to see Murphy at 14/1. However Wenbo is marginally preferred due to the each-way potential of his 50/1 odds. Liang is in cracking form and thrived during the last two autumns in big UK events - winning last year's English Open and reaching the 2015 UK final.

Back Ronnie O'Sullivan 10u win @ [4.3]
Back Hossein Vafaei 0.25u e/w @ 225/1

Ronnie simply must be backed. Most agree that he is unbeatable at his best and, right now, he is very close to it. His winning performances in Shanghai and Barnsley involved his best form in a few years and nobody is getting close. Moreover the one man to have eclipsed him, Mark Selby, is not in the field.

There are dangers, for sure. Ronnie could have to face Kyren Wilson in the last-16 and John Higgins in the last-eight, both of whom are likeable and in-form. Yet he's owned both recently so instead I'll try a miracle for my second pick. 23 year-old Iranian Hossein Vafaei has potential, notably reaching the quarters in Barnsley and last season's China Open semis.

Back David Gilbert 0.25u e/w @ 150/1
Back Michael Holt 0.25u e/w @ 175/1

Judd Trump is very much the man to beat in this bottom section but, with Ronnie in the staking plan, we can't afford to include the tournament second favourite too. The Juddernaut was going at full steam in Shanghai until running into Ronnie in the final, and that is due to happen a round earlier this time.

Instead, I'm going for a couple of outsiders who have appeared in recent columns. Holt doesn't have much to beat before the last-16 and, even at that stage, the hardest he could face is Ali Carter (assuming the Captain negotiates some tricky early rounds). As for Gilbert, he's third-best behind Trump and Mark Williams in their mini-section and perfectly capable of causing an upset against either.

Follow Paul on Twitter @paulmotty

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