The start of the 2015 Betfred World Snooker Championship is just a single day away and, after a long qualifying process and a botched draw, we now know our first round line-up.
Here is a look at each of the last 32 encounters that will take place over the coming days and an offering of who might go on and capture the famous title.
Mark Selby vs Kurt Maflin
Two weeks after their semi-final clash in the China Open, Selby and Maflin go head to head once more in the opening contest of this year’s World Championship. Selby, of course, comes back as the reigning champion attempting to break the ‘Curse of the Crucible’. No first-time champion has returned the following year to successfully defend their crown. Norway’s Maflin is a very heavy scorer and it is somewhat of a surprise that this appearance equates to his debut in the tournament. Talk about a baptism of fire! It’s a tough opener for both, and this one is likely to be pretty close, but I suspect experience will tell in the end.
Stephen Maguire vs Anthony McGill
This battle of the Scots pits someone who perhaps feels he should have already won the big one in his career against another who many fancy will claim the coveted trophy in the future. Maguire once claimed that he wanted success in Sheffield before the age of 30. That number has long since passed by and, despite two runs to the last four, he has failed, sometimes miserably, in his quest for snooker’s holy grail. Indeed, he has lost in the first round in three out of the last four editions. 24 year-old McGill is another debutant but a player on the rise following his quarter-final appearance at the UK Championship this season. These two know each other well and practice often together so expect another close affair. If it is, Maguire could struggle given his past troubles at this stage of the event, but I still think he’ll squeeze through.
Joe Perry vs Zhang Anda
Joe Perry must be riding a wave of confidence after finally joining the exclusive ranking event champion’s club. The 40 year-old won the Players Championship last month in Bangkok and, on paper, has one of the easier last 32 ties at the Crucible. Of course, no match is easy now and Zhang is obviously performing well having come through the stern test of the qualifying. In fact, the Chinese cueist required two deciding frame victories over Mark Joyce and then countryman Liang Wenbo to progress. Zhang has some experience at this level and nearly caused one of the shocks of the tournament in 2010 before eventually losing 10-9 to Stephen Hendry. The 23 year-old evidently has game, but Perry should be too strong on this occasion.
Shaun Murphy vs Robin Hull
This is a really tricky one. At the beginning of 2015 Murphy looked almost unstoppable as he collected his maiden Masters title and subsequently reached the final of the German Masters. However, since then he’s gone off the boil a little – although not at any overly concerning level. His opponent Hull returns to the Crucible for the second successive season and will surely be elated as his success in the tournament has ensured him his pro card for the next campaign. The Finn is highly regarded within the snooker scene but there’s a big difference between showing your potential in the qualifiers and proving it on centre stage in front of mass audiences.
Barry Hawkins vs Matthew Selt
Hawkins had endured an awful season until he demonstrated a modicum of form in his run to the last eight of the China Open in Beijing a fortnight ago. Selt, on the other hand, is in the form of his life and recently rose into the top 32 in the world rankings for the first time. This new-found belief in his ability was reflected in Ponds Forge, where he recorded a hat-trick of 10-8 victories. The ‘Hawk’ is a former finalist but he looks all out of sorts this year and it’s a good draw for Selt.
Mark Allen vs Ryan Day
Allen’s career is a series of peaks and troughs. The Northern Irishman is either always at the business end of tournaments or, conversely, nowhere near to them. The former semi-finalist has done precious little since losing the final of the International Championship in November. Day hasn’t enjoyed a momentous season by any stretch of the imagination but has been solid and looked strong in qualifying. The Welshman also has a good record at the Crucible with three quarter-final appearances to his name. This one will be close.
Ali Carter vs Alan McManus
44 year-old McManus is loving the twilight of his career. The Scot reached the last eight in 2014 and, even though he doesn’t appear to be playing as well as he was then, still emerged from qualifying with three relatively straightforward victories. Carter, meanwhile, has struggled to regain his top game since returning to the circuit after his successful battle with lung cancer last year. The ‘Captain’ has been pipped in a few close ties which has derailed his comeback but he loves the Crucible and is a twice finalist in the blue-riband event. It would be a popular victory, but beware the tartan trousers.
Neil Robertson vs Jamie Jones
Welshman Jones is a dangerous player, highlighted by his stunning run to the last eight in 2012. His results since then have been mediocre but emerging from the tough qualifying event might just be the injection of confidence he requires. Unfortunately for him, 2010 champion Robertson is his first round opponent. The Australian has had an up and down season but, unlike in previous campaigns when he had long runs in China before beginning his journey in Sheffield, there should be no question of burnout. Robertson’s a dangerous animal this year and I think he’ll go far.
Ding Junhui vs Mark Davis
After an absolute nightmare campaign, Ding finally showed some promise by reaching the semi-finals in his home event in Beijing. The 28 year-old actually overcame the challenge of Davis during that run but his challenger arguably represents the most difficult of all the qualifying competitors. Davis is making his tenth appearance spanning almost 20 years so the aura of the place shouldn’t faze him as much as it would others. Everyone knows Ding’s questionable Crucible record. You suspect that if he could just get going in the tournament he would become a more dangerous force. But can he escape the first hurdle unscathed?
John Higgins vs Robert Milkins
Like Davis, Milkins is another man who every top 16 member would have wanted to avoid. The Gloucester cueist only just missed out on an automatic berth himself but managed to make it through the three rounds of qualifying, including a 10-9 defeat of Andrew Higginson in the last round. It looked for a while that Higgins’ glory days were behind him but he scooped the Welsh Open prize and appears a formidable force once again. With his pedigree you could never fully write off the four-time champion adding another title to his glittering collection.
Marco Fu vs Jimmy Robertson
Fu hasn’t really enjoyed a very good second half of the season. Aside from an appearance in the quarter-finals of the Welsh Open the Hong Kong player has emerged victorious in only a handful of matches. By contrast, his 28 year-old challenger is in the best form of his career with a pair of semi-finals in the two minor-ranking event series to his name. Robertson also recorded an impressive single frame triumph over Xiao Guodong in qualifying and could pose Fu problems if he manages to have a strong opening session.
Judd Trump vs Stuart Carrington
I don’t think there’ll be many routs in this year’s first round but this has the hallmark of potentially being one of them. Carrington excelled at Ponds Forge, especially in his 10-7 win over 2002 champion Peter Ebdon, but making his first appearance at the Crucible is daunting enough without having to play arguably the most in-form competitor on the Main Tour right now. Trump’s season has been superb with victories in the Australian Open and World Grand Prix to his credit, along with runners-up spots in both the Champion of Champions and UK Championship tournaments – both to Ronnie O’Sullivan. A defeat to Carrington would represent a major shock. Indeed, many are tipping the 25 year-old to go on and capture his first world title. He could certainly run it close.
Ricky Walden vs Graeme Dott
2006 world champion Graeme Dott suffered the agony of missing out on qualification for the World Championship last year and, even though he had serious reservations with regard the format, was determined not to fail at Ponds Forge again this year. The tenacious Scot, a twice runner-up as well, plays a Ricky Walden enjoying a great campaign. The Englishman won the International Championship in Chengdu and also reached the final of the Indian Open in March. Despite this, something is telling me that, regardless of his grievances with the qualifying, being forced to play and win those three matches will work in Dott’s favour.
Stuart Bingham vs Robbie Williams
To qualify last year was good enough, but for Robbie Williams to repeat the trick again this year is truly impressive. In eight previous appearances at the Crucible, Stuart Bingham has only once managed to get beyond the last 16. I think there’s a very good chance of him at the very least matching his best run during this championship. Williams will probably suffer from less nerves than on his debut twelve months ago but ‘Ballrun’ will be keen to avoid his first round exit he suffered to Ken Doherty on that occasion.
Mark Williams vs Matthew Stevens
A resurgent Williams has been playing brilliantly for the last couple of months, featuring at the business end of almost every tournament he has played in – which has been a lot. That he has failed to grab any significant silverware, other than the World Seniors crown, will be of some grievance to him. Some are labeling the Welshman as a dark horse for a third world title but he has been landed with a brutal last 32 tie against countryman Stevens. This is a repeat of the 2000 final which Williams prevailed in 18-16 and this one ought to be just as tight. Once again, Stevens’ solid outings in Ponds Forge are going to play a part in this outcome I feel.
Ronnie O’Sullivan vs Craig Steadman
This really is a wonderful draw for O’Sullivan because if he had been pitted against a more experienced player he may have struggled. O’Sullivan has had a fairly good season by anyone’s standard but there is a small question over his temperament, which has looked fragile in recent months and a throwback to the erratic days of old. Yet, if he gets the opening win out of the way O’Sullivan is more likely to grow in stature in his hunt for a sixth World Championship. Lowly ranked Steadman performed brilliantly to qualify for the first time but anything other than a ‘Rocket’ victory would legislate as an enormous upset.
Semi-Final Prediction: Robertson to beat Selby. Trump to beat O’Sullivan
Final Prediction: Robertson to beat Trump