Last year, in a different blog, I predicted the correct results from 14 out of the 16 first round matches at the Crucible.
The only two that caught me out were Judd Trump’s victory over defending champ Neil Robertson and Mark Allen’s dramatic comeback triumph against Matthew Stevens.
This time around I’m nowhere near as confident of achieving a similar success rate – mainly because I think the fact the qualifying tournament was staged only a week prior to the main event could throw up a few extra shocks – but here goes for the laugh.
The first round ties in Sheffield are, of course, best of 19 frames so plenty of time for twists and turns.
John Higgins vs Liang Wenbo
Like quite a few last 32 encounters this year, this one is quite tough to call. Liang is just so unpredictable that you don’t know which one will turn up on any given day. That said, his good days are far rarer than his bad. Following a bad season for the defending champion, Higgins could be there for the taking but I expect his experience to see him through this one.
Stuart Bingham vs Stephen Hendry
Bingham has by and large struggled since around this time last year when he performed well at the Crucible and then went on to win the Australian Open. The Englishman famously beat Hendry in this round in 2000 but, unlike then, he’ll probably start favourite on this occasion. That said, and despite Hendry’s ill-advised exhibition run in China this week, I think the Scot has shown enough of late to suggest he’ll edge ‘Ballrun’.
Graeme Dott vs Joe Perry
This is what you would call a stinker! 2006 champion Dott has had a solid if unspectacular campaign but that can work to his advantage as he usually feeds off negative – or just absent – press regarding his challenge. PTC and Championship League events aside, Perry’s season has been one to forget but he is still a very dangerous player. This one has going the distance written all over it and, for me, it’ll be the qualifier.
Stephen Maguire vs Luca Brecel
Superlatives have come naturally when speaking about Belgium’s Luca Brecel in the last couple of weeks. A fantastic run past four season professionals will see the 17 year-old become the youngest player to compete at the Crucible. No draw was going to be easy but an in-form Stephen Maguire is rather brutal. Maguire’s a dark horse for me – I think his quarter of the draw is very winnable and once in a semi-final anything can happen.
Shaun Murphy vs Jamie Jones
Continuing from the last match, I fancy Maguire’s last four opponent will be Shaun Murphy. So that doesn’t give Jamie much chance, does it? A very likeable lad, Jones has done well to continue his progression through the ranks in the last two years and a debut at the Crucible is just reward. Murphy, though, will be looking to end a consistent season lacking much success with a determined push for a second title.
Stephen Lee vs Andrew Higginson
What a fantastic 2012 it has been for Stephen Lee. Clearly the best player over the last three months or so, the question is does Lee have the stamina to go far in a longer formatted event? Quite frankly, I don’t think so. You can afford to have one bad session in a World Championship and recover but two, three or four and you’ll wear yourself out. However, despite a dangerous opponent in Higginson, Lee should have enough to reach at least the last 16.
Ali Carter vs Mark Davis
Tricky one. Carter’s battle with form, illness and confidence has been well publicised since Christmas. His dramatic plummet down he rankings all but ensures his exit from the Top 16 following the conclusion of this championship, yet he did enjoy a pair of morale-boosting wins in China. The perennial 17th-in-the-world man, Mark Davis would give anything to break into the elite bracket. I expect him to fall short once again.
Judd Trump vs Dominic Dale
In the opening round of the UK Championship, eccentric Welshman Dale had Trump on the ropes at 4-2 and in complete control. What followed was an incredible sequence of flukes and good fortune in Trump’s favour that completely changed the complexion of the match. Trump went on to win his first major title. Now, what that encounter did remind us of is of how dangerous two-time ranking event champion Dale can be and he’ll be a test for last year’s finalist. A test, but that is all.
Mark Williams vs Liu Chuang
I’m not going to beat around the bush about this – Williams has been, well, crap in the last six months. It’s obvious that he has suffered from three devastating losses in finals where he has somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Not only that but his potential second round opponent is Ronnie O’Sullivan, a player he has failed to overcome in ten years and appears to go into an encounter with him already beaten. Liu makes a return to the Crucible four years after his debut and the experience will once again stand him in good stead but, Williams’ tribulations aside, he’s unlikely to cause an upset.
Ronnie O’Sullivan vs Peter Ebdon
The tie of the round, the year, the decade and the century – well, maybe not that big. This has the makings of a clash that will be talked about for years to come so it’ll probably turn out to be a damp squib. My mind is literally (figuratively) about to explode as I try to predict the outcome of this one. They’re both playing well but Ebdon has the added bonus of actually boasting a reliable temperament. That said, a unique rivalry with a chequered past ensures that O’Sullivan should be up for the challenge, long as it may be.
Martin Gould vs David Gilbert
Another extremely difficult match to call. In 2010, Gould threw away an 11-5 lead to Neil Robertson in the second round as the Australian went on to be crowned world champ. Gould has since broken into the Top 16 but his progression has come to a notable standstill. The talented Gilbert is someone who will probably feel he could have done more in the game by now. Gould, ironically, should be his inspiration that a career doesn’t have to ignite at 21 – or 17. Both attacking players, this could be the unheralded tie of the round for spectators.
Neil Robertson vs Ken Doherty
It’s great to see Doherty back at the Crucible in a playing capacity and the Dubliner’s draw throws up a mouth-watering battle of two ex-champs. Doherty will be on a high after his 10-9 thriller with Anthony Hamilton in the qualifiers but all-manner of positive energy is unlikely to be enough against Masters champion Robertson. Indeed, the Aussie is arguably the best all-round player in the game and he’s my tip for the title. Sorry Ken.
Ding Junhui vs Ryan Day
Ryan Day’s career started to go south a few years ago and, quite simply, it’s stayed there. It’s amazing really but sometimes this happens to certain players and it just can’t work out for everyone no matter how gifted you may be. Ding has dipped in and out of form throughout all of this campaign but remains an ever-present threat and he’ll make light work of Day.
Mark Allen vs Cao Yupeng
Allen finally emerged into the winner’s enclosure when he demolished Stephen Lee in the final of the World Open last month and this should breed a new dimension of confidence into his game – something he rarely lacks at the worst of times. Cao Yupeng is the third debutant in the field and probably the least likely to cause an upset but his presence is a reminder to the world that China’s coming. Still, one of the easier bouts to predict.
Matthew Stevens vs Marco Fu
After a positive 2010/11 campaign, I would have thought Stevens would have pushed back into top 8 contention in the rankings but it’s possible he’s been affected by his final-frame defeat to Mark Allen at this stage in Sheffield last year. Fu has equally fallen off the radar somewhat but, with a strong mentality, always has the potential to string a few good results together. A case of punch and counter-punch for this one.
Mark Selby vs Barry Hawkins
Hawkins got a monkey off his back last year when he won his first ever match at the Crucible on his sixth attempt. The fact that world no.1 Mark Selby is reportedly still struggling with the neck injury that forced him out of the China Open will be another timely boost to the Hawk’s confidence. I think this one will be a closely fought contest and it may come down to who holds the advantage at the final mid-session interval. If it’s Selby, you’d have to fancy him.