Paul Krishnamurty previews the second of this season's Home Nations series, which will be covered extensively on Betfair Live Video from Monday...
"At these odds, Xintong is a must-bet...he is improving at a rate of knots."
Back Zhao Xintong each-way @ 125/1
The Champion of Champions is ongoing in Coventry, with one of our pre-tournament selections, Ronnie O'Sullivan, in tomorrow's final awaiting the winner between Mark Allen and Kyren Wilson. On Monday all three and indeed all 16 from this elite invitional will skip across the Irish Sea for the second of the Home Nations series.
On the evidence of both previous renewals, we should be looking beyond those big-names. None of the four players to reach the final had made the Champion of Champions line-up. Mark King was a massive outsider, around 150/1, when winning in 2016 and, while Mark Williams was certainly pickable last year, this was his first title in four years.
Wilson has never seemed more confident
That memorable comeback to touch off Yan Bingtao really kickstarted Mark's remarkable run but the reigning world champion is in nothing like the same form now. He's very hard to back at 14/1, with all sorts of obstacles in this quarter. Most significantly Neil Robertson and Kyren Wilson, with the latter very much preferred - regardless of how he fares over the weekend.
I was kicking myself all week for preferring Trump in last week's preview, in fear of Wilson's tougher opener, and hope some readers took the hint in my comments and backed him as outsider against either Williams or Trump. I'm adamant Kyren is going all the way - perhaps the new Selby - and seems more confident than ever this term.
As always when starting from the round of 128, the plan is to back at least one triple-figure priced selection in each quarter. Here, the competition is stiff. Any of Mark Davis, Noppon Saengkham, Lyu Haotian or Luo Honghoa could appeal from 125/1 upwards, but only one of them can make the last-32.
Instead let's give the likeable Sunny Akani a try. This 23 year-old Thai has caught the eye both in early rounds, disposing of similar standard opponents and against the best. He gave Ronnie the fright of his life at the UK Championship and knocked Williams out of the International. Apparently he practices relentlessly - just the sort to follow.
Improving Xintong a must-bet
The two biggest guns here make no appeal whatsoever. Judd Trump is instantly back in the bin after that listless defeat in Coventry and I see no justification for him trading at half the odds of fast emerging, similar-type Jack Lisowski. John Higgins just hasn't done enough for me this season either. Lisowski is tempting but he's got a tricky draw from the outset.
An event of this stature is precisely Ryan Day's level. He made a big belated step forward last term with three victories - in Latvia, Gibraltar and Romania. He's beaten Trump this season already and shouldn't really fear any of these. He's taken over Yan Bingtao - his likely last-64 opponent.
At these odds, Xintong is a must-bet. Apart from a run to the China Championship semi, he hasn't contended in the latter stages but the signals from that run and earlier rounds is that he is improving at a rate of knots. Following that respectable 6-4 defeat to Selby, he lost a cracker to Trump in a decider in the English Open, producing a standard that would have terrified most.
Swerve Ronnie with these outsiders
Last week I discussed the dilemma of when and when not to back O'Sullivan. If the Champion of Champions was his sort of event, this is the opposite. Defeat to Elliot Slessor in the last-32 here was the last time he lost a best-of-seven and, if memory serves, he didn't look focused at all. As always Ronnie may run away with it but I'm happy to take him on.
Here's a couple of massive-priced alternatives. Chris Wakelin has already beaten Ronnie, in the 2016 English Open and he lost a decider to Trump at the Crucible. In reaching the International semis, six-time world semi-finalist Matthew Stevens proved the old adage that form is temporary, class permanent.
The other, obvious contender is Allen, who is on home turf. That adds a bit of pressure and he's been competing constantly for the last fortnight. Nevertheless 'Pistol' is in superb form.
Bingham to keep the dream alive
Speaking of pressure, Stuart Bingham is the only man left chasing a £1M bonus for winning all four Home Nations events. At this early stage, it is merely an exciting dream but if he gets to the latter stages it becomes a talking point. I don't see anyone stopping Bingham before the last-16 where, at worst, he'd face Shaun Murphy, who isn't having a great season.
Mark Selby is the favourite in this section but he faces a horrible start with potentially Anthony Hamilton and Jimmy Robertson just to reach the last-32. Swerve him in favour of Scott Donaldson - who has twice reached the semis at gigantic odds for this column. In contrast, his early rounds are very winnable.
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