With a dramatic first round in the 2014 World Championship coming to its conclusion, it’s time to turn our attention to the last 16 in Sheffield.
The second round gets under way on Thursday with defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan looking to continue his unbeaten streak at the Crucible to a dozen matches.
All the players who reach this stage will at the very least feel part of the tournament by now, which is important in such an elongated event that runs for more than a fortnight.
The opening few days conjured up a succession of shock results but, actually, the draw remains packed with experience.
Of the players already through, only qualifier Michael Wasley’s presence immediately strikes as an unheralded name among the top pros.
That said, his surprise 10-9 triumph over China’s Ding Junhui may have ruffled a few feathers but those in the know will be well aware of the talent that the Englishman possesses.
The majority of the rest of the field boast a wealth of experience, whether it be in ranking event tournaments or on the Crucible stage itself.
Even though several of the first round ties were close, the overall standard of play so far has been low, with sessions frequently being delayed with protracted safety battles or simply an abundance of misplaced shots.
This is all likely to change, however, as the best players seek to reach the business end of proceedings and, with less than a third of the championship complete, there is plenty of time to see an improvement.
Lets, then, have a look at the next few days as the field is whittled down to the final eight.
Ronnie O’Sullivan came through a tricky enough test with Finland’s Robin Hull to reach the second round for a third straight year with a 10-4 scoreline.
In actuality, the contest was actually much closer than the scoreline suggested but a mixture of big breaks from the ‘Rocket’ and sloppy misses from his opponent at crucial times widened the margin considerably.
For the 38 year-old, though, it will be a case of job done and a safe passage into the second week.
O’Sullivan will have had four full days of rest between sessions so there’ll be no excuse for fatigue as he comes up against fellow Englishman Joe Perry.
Of course, burnout shouldn’t be an issue at all for the Chigwell cueist given the fact he has managed his time wisely with entering events all season.
And O’Sullivan will start his second clash as the overwhelming favourite to reach the quarter-final for a 16th time.
Indeed, Ronnie is 1/11 to beat Perry with Betfair and it would take a monstrous effort for the challenger to upset those odds.
The ‘Gentleman’ has only beaten O’Sullivan twice in ten attempts, although one of those was in the 2008 UK Championship when he prevailed 9-5.
A repeat of that is unlikely as part of Perry’s problem throughout his career has been his failure to kill off opposition at pivotal moments.
That problem wont stand him in good stead against an opponent who has shown few signs of temperament issues over the course of the last 12 months.
The other match in this section will, ironically, be a repeat of that 2008 UK Championship final between Shaun Murphy and Marco Fu.
Murphy emerged there in a deciding frame thriller and it would not necessarily be a surprise to see this one go close again with both players title winners this season.
Contrasting first round encounters had 2005 world champ Murphy come through a titanic tussle with Jamie Cope whereas Fu enjoyed a slightly more comfortable passage against Martin Gould – the third time the pair had met at this stage in five world editions.
Fu has had a superb season – arguably the best after the big three of O’Sullivan, Ding and Robertson – but I feel that Murphy’s better record at the venue will prove the difference in this affair.
Ronnie O’Sullivan vs Joe Perry (Predicted Winner: O’Sullivan)
Shaun Murphy vs Marco Fu (Predicted Winner: Murphy)
Barry Hawkins and Ricky Walden will meet at the Crucible for a second successive season in this quarter of the draw.
The pair put together an entertaining semi-final this time last year which the ‘Hawk’ just about edged 17-14.
Walden spoke of his desire to enact revenge on the Kent player following his win over Kyren Wilson on Tuesday but Hawkins, in his post-match press conference after beating David Gilbert, responded in kind having surrendered the final four frames in a 6-5 defeat to the Chester player in this season’s Masters.
Hawkins begins the match as 8/15 favourite with Betfair and one would imagine rightfully so given the difference in their respective progressions to the second round.
Walden struggled at times during his tie with debutant Kyren Wilson, eventually coming through a 10-7 winner after a mammoth 73 minute 17th frame.
On the other hand, Hawkins rattled off eight frames on the spin in a confident performance over Gilbert – a player who could have been a potential banana skin for the world no.4.
Hawkins is a player who many believe can once again go under the radar and do some considerable damage in this event.
The fact that his part of the draw has opened up with the demise of Ding Junhui will fuel such expectations, and the likelihood for a rematch of last year’s final with O’Sullivan is now a distinct possibility.
The other contest will arguably provide the tournament with a surprise last eight member.
Michael Wasley has been the sensation of the tournament so far having knocked out one of the pre-tournament favourites in Ding Junhui.
The 24 year-old held his nerve together very well despite having to be taken off early in his second session 9-8 down.
The Gloucester warrior returned with a stunning century break with the full Crucible audience all to himself, and then overcame the five-time ranking event winner this season in a decider, albeit aided by an outrageous fluke on the final red.
Wasley will take on Dominic Dale or Mark Davis in the last 16 with that duo due to complete their first round tie on Thursday.
Dale has looked more confident since his victory in the Shoot-Out last January and he’ll be thinking that this is a fantastic chance for him to go so deep in the big one so late in his career.
Highlighting this was his first session display against Mark Davis in the first round, which leaves the Welshman 7-2 with the concluding session to be completed on Thursday.
Barry Hawkins vs Ricky Walden (Predicted Winner: Hawkins)
Dominic Dale/Mark Davis vs Michael Wasley (Predicted Winner: Dale)
All of the bottom half of the draw always appeared more difficult to predict than the top half and so it has proven to be the case.
It doesn’t get much easier either in this quarter as convincing arguments could be made for all four players in this brace of encounters.
Mark Selby and Ali Carter were both severely tested in their initial battles against Michael White and Xiao Guodong respectively, with the first going all the way and Carter’s duel needing all but one frame to be decided.
Selby holds the upper hand in their head-to-head record with their most recent meeting coming at the Welsh Open in which the ‘Jester’ ended with a 4-1 success.
Unsurprisingly, as world no.2, the 2007 runner-up begins as favourite but Carter should prove to be a stern test having gone all the way to final himself twice after all.
This one has a decider written all over it but I feel that Carter’s inferior mental approach will prove to be the pivotal difference.
Selby may not have the best of records in ranking event finals but he has earned the reputation as being the master of brinkmanship for a reason – he can win close, hard-fought encounters seemingly at will.
The second tie here has a pair of 40-something year-olds back in the big time after several seasons in the doldrums.
Alan McManus and Ken Doherty did battle at this very stage of the tournament nine years ago when they were both still key members at the top of the sport.
Prior to 2005, Doherty had been a three-time finalist, not to mention 1997 champion, while Scotland’s McManus twice reached the semi-finals in the early 1990s.
Both surprised seeded opposition in the opening round with Doherty reeling off seven frames on the trot to see off Stuart Bingham 10-5 and McManus knocking out four-time champion and good friend John Higgins 10-7.
This, again, is a tough one to call with the duo regarded as compelling tacticians of the game.
Overall, McManus has enjoyed a better season but Doherty’s experience, coupled with the manner of his first round success, will impart confidence for the Irishman.
It will be interesting to see how they are able to cope with the pressure of a potential quarter-final berth at stake, so expect plenty of nervy moments as the game reaches its climax.
Mark Selby vs Ali Carter (Predicted Winner: Selby)
Alan McManus vs Ken Doherty (Predicted Winner: Doherty)
Judd Trump was thoroughly awful in his opener with Tom Ford and he was ultimately fortunate that he didn’t come up against someone who could take advantage.
Almost anyone else and one suspects that Trump’s 2014 challenge would already be at an end.
However, the 2011 runner-up and UK champion managed to squeak through a 10-8 winner, despite an enormous amount of misses and unforced errors.
It seems unlikely that Trump will play that badly again and his stature in the draw could grow should he find some form on the practice table between now and his first session with Welshman Ryan Day.
Day inflicted a second first round defeat for Stephen Maguire in as many seasons after coming through a bruising battle 10-9 and will be confident of reaching a fourth quarter-final at the Crucible having witnessed Trump’s dismal display.
Yet, one feels that the manner in which Trump advanced may actually work in his favour.
Despite his level of play, the 24 year-old will feel lucky to even still be in the tournament and this may lift some of the pressure he’s obviously under.
Day will punish Trump’s mistakes better than Ford did, of that there is no doubt, so the key question is what Trump will turn up?
The bottom of the draw has arguably the tie of the round with world no.1 Neil Robertson and Northern Ireland’s Mark Allen going head-to-head.
The pair have a history of close encounters in the Masters and now will prepare for a best of 25 clash as they continue their bid to land the holy grail.
Robertson has been one of the players of the season and, by contrast, Allen, despite having won two European Tour events, hasn’t necessarily performed well in the bigger ranking tournaments.
However, I have a suspicion that Allen could get himself geared up for this test and he may be ready to finally record a big win.
Robertson will of course have other ideas, but his stamina may be brought into question following a long, grueling campaign so far.
First, the UK champ has to see off qualifier Robbie Williams, although a 7-2 overnight lead would suggest that he isn’t far away from achieving that at the very least.
Judd Trump vs Ryan Day (Predicted Winner: Trump)
Mark Allen vs Neil Robertson/Robbie Williams (Predicted Winner: Allen)