Features and Interviews

World Championship Preview: Onus on O’Sullivan

The qualifying rounds are complete and the draw for last 32 has been made – the 2016 Betfred World Snooker Championship is almost upon us.

A mere two days remain before Stuart Bingham begins his defence at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.

Here is a look at each of the 16 first round matches and an offering of who might go on to challenge for the famous title.

Stuart Bingham

Bingham beat Murphy 18-15 in a gripping final last year.

Click on each match to view their respective head-to-heads. (CueTracker.net)

Stuart Bingham vs Ali Carter

With the likes of Ali Carter and Ding Junhui among the qualifiers, the first round was always going to drum up a few humdinger ties. Unfortunately for the reigning champion, Bingham drew one of the short straws. There’s bound to be an unenviable pile of pressure on the 39 year-old’s shoulders as he makes the exciting, but daunting, walk through the curtain and down the steps into the arena on Saturday morning. No tie would have been easy under the circumstances, but Bingham could have wished for a more straightforward outcome than two-time beaten finalist Carter. The ‘Captain’ is going to represent an extremely difficult opening challenge to Bingham’s quest to break the curse of there never being a first-time champion able to defend his crown. Despite the disparity in their rankings, both players are pretty evenly matched and Carter will certainly feel that he has unfinished business at a venue in which he has excelled in the past. Yet, after a difficult season as world champ, Bingham has come into a bout of form at just the right time after reaching the final of the World Grand Prix. 10-9, anyone?

Prediction: Bingham

Stephen Maguire vs Alan McManus

Well, Alan McManus said in his post-match interview on Wednesday upon qualifying that he would like to draw one of his best mates from Scotland – and so it transpired. The veteran of two semi-finals is making his 20th appearance at the Crucible and his reward is a date with close pal Stephen Maguire. Maguire, who himself has twice previously featured in the last four, just about squeezed into the automatic positions of qualification after a gutsy run to the semi-finals of the recent China Open. However, the 35 year-old’s form overall has been sketchy and his sequence in the World Championship of late even worse. Maguire, once regularly among the favourites, has lost in the opening round in four out of the last five editions of the tournament. McManus will certainly prove a difficult nut to crack in order for Maguire to avoid a similar early exit in 2016. If the latter can start well and score heavily then he should progress but any delving into the tactical side and you’d have to fancy his elder statesman. Maguire’s inconsistency, maybe tellingly, just doesn’t instill any degree of confidence in his ability to get the result.

Prediction: McManus

Ricky Walden vs Robbie Williams

Ricky Walden is arguably the most in-form player on the circuit at the moment having reached successive ranking event finals at the tail end of the campaign. However, two very important questions need to answered. First, has the Chester cueist peaked too soon? And second, how damaging will the nature of both of his final defeats be in his preparations for Sheffield? Walden blew early leads against Mark Allen in the Players Championship and a week later against Judd Trump in the China Open. Against Williams, the three-time ranking event winner is up against a player who has qualified in each of the last three World Championships but has yet to taste success at the venue. The pair met in the 2014 UK Championship, when Walden narrowly won in a decider. Williams will prove a tough challenge but Walden should have enough in the tank to at least get into the more serious part of the championship.

Prediction: Walden

John Higgins vs Ryan Day

John Higgins begins his bid for a fifth world title against Welshman Ryan Day. The duo has actually met twice at the Crucible already in their careers. In 2004, Higgins edged Day in a decider before the latter enacted revenge four years later en route to one of his three quarter-final appearances in Sheffield. Day also beat the Scot in the World Grand Prix last month. However, this is a major chance for Higgins to add to his world tally and one suspects the 40 year-old is fully aware of such. Despite the inevitable odd blip during an arduous season, he is in his best form in years. Higgins will be quietly content with his quarter of the draw as well, potentially avoiding several of the traditional big guns – with no disrespect to defending champion Bingham – until the semi-final stage. Higgins may not capture the trophy this year but it may be his best chance to give one more really concerted push for global glory.

Prediction: Higgins

Judd Trump vs Liang Wenbo

One of the ties of the round sees China Open champion Judd Trump challenged by one of China’s most colourful characters, Liang Wenbo. Trump famously threw away a 4-1 lead to Liang in the UK Championship this season as the latter surged to his maiden final in one of the big three majors. Trump is understandably one of the widely fancied competitors to do well this fortnight but, while Bingham has his own Crucible curse, so too does the 26 year-old from Bristol. No champion in Beijing has ever gone on to emerge successful in Sheffield in the same season. Trump won’t have that etched into his mind much but it just goes to show how difficult it is to maintain form in this age of the sport. Trump agonisingly lost in the semi-finals last year by the odd frame and he’ll be determined to put that right, and quell the critics who gossip that he may never win the big one. Liang is a tough test for the former world no.1 but even worse ones lie ahead…

Ding Trump 2011

Trump beat Ding in a dramatic semi-final clash five years ago.

Prediction: Trump

Martin Gould vs Ding Junhui

…For in the second round the winner of Trump and Liang is going to have to play either German Masters victor Martin Gould or qualifier Ding Junhui. Labeling Ding as a qualifier is both accurate and ludicrously misleading. Let’s not make any mistakes about the fact that Ding is one of the favourites for the title this year. The Chinese no.1 appeared to come into form at just the right time when he featured in the business ends of the Welsh Open, World Grand Prix and Players Championship, only to suffer a costly early defeat in his home event to allow Maguire in to steal the 16th and final automatic spot. That may have just done Ding a favour, because the 11-time ranking event winner came through Ponds Forge with such an ease that the workout will have him brimming with confidence ahead of his clash with Gould. Gould’s own confidence is also sky high – indeed, perhaps a smidgen over the top with some of the statements he comes out with – so Ding is unlikely to have it his own way like he did against Greg Casey, Ross Muir and Nigel Bond in qualifying. However, there is a slightly different aura surrounding Ding this year – one of determination and hope, rather than the expectation and pressure that is generally heaped on him by his home media. Which could make him very, very dangerous.

Prediction: Ding

Mark Williams vs Graeme Dott

This first round encounter throws up a battle between two former champions. Williams, winner in 2000 and 2003, and 2006 champion Dott meet each other at the Crucible for the first time. It’s crazy to think that it’s now a full decade since the little Scot shocked the snooker world by winning his one and only world title. Of course, by now everybody knows all about the tenacity of the 38 year-old and it promises to be more of the same against Wales’ Williams. This encounter is pretty evenly matched and will simply come down to who turns up to play better on the day. Williams has dipped in and out of good form but can still produce the goods on occasion and could be a minor threat if he can get on a roll. Should he score like he can then he ought to just about have enough in reserve to reach round two at the very least.

Prediction: Williams

Neil Robertson vs Michael Holt

Michael Holt became the last man to qualify for this year’s World Championship when he beat Mark King 10-8 late on Wednesday night. The Englishman is set to make his eighth appearance at the Crucible but he has stumbled at the opening hurdle on every occasion bar on his debut, when he reached the last 16. It’s unlikely we’ll see the ‘Hitman’ back in the best of 25 frame set-up again this year as he has drawn one of the more difficult top 16ers in Neil Robertson. Robertson has had a quiet few months since he collected consecutive cups in the Champion of Champions and UK Championship at the end of 2015. It’s six years since the Australian won his maiden world crown and he is yet to return to the final, which is somewhat of a surprise considering his consistent status among the game’s very elite. Robertson is extremely dangerous and often gets into a zone where it appears as though he’s never going to miss. Not being in Ronnie O’Sullivan’s half is a bonus but countering that is the fact Trump, Ding, Gould and Williams are sardined in his quarter. As openers come, though, he’ll be happy with Holt.

Murphy McGill

Can McGill enact revenge on Murphy?

Prediction: Robertson

Shaun Murphy vs Anthony McGill

The last time Shaun Murphy and Anthony McGill met each other was almost 12 months ago on this very stage. Murphy edged debutant McGill in the quarter-finals after the Scot had previously caused a sensation by dispatching of then defending champion Mark Selby. McGill has done very well to qualify again, overcoming a grueling examination with talented Thai Thepchaiya Un-Nooh in the final qualifying round at Ponds Forge, and the 25 year-old expressed that it is the most he has ever concentrated – such was his desire to return to the Crucible. In Murphy, McGill again faces a difficult prospect. With one title, two runners-up spots and four further appearances in the last eight, Murphy knows how to win World Championship matches. Indeed, he thrives under the setting. McGill proved last year that he himself won’t botch under the pressure but he’s unlikely to be the giant-killer in successive seasons.

Prediction: Murphy

Marco Fu vs Peter Ebdon

Peter Ebdon won 17 out of his last 19 frames in qualifying to ensure his name was in the last 32 draw for the 23rd time – and first since 2013. The 2002 champion impressively came from 9-3 down to stun Gerard Greene in a penultimate round decider before pummeling Ian Burns. One of the big questions surrounding Ebdon, despite his well-publicised vegan diet, will be his stamina. Because the man known as ‘The Force’ doesn’t just put everything into each match, he puts it all into every single shot. It’s so unlikely that the 45 year-old will go deep into this championship but it’s great to see him back because, love or loathe him, he’s been one of the biggest characters in the game for decades and deserves the respect of a former champion. His opponent, Marco Fu, is as solid as they come and Ebdon will do well to even get past that initial obstacle.

Prediction: Fu

Barry Hawkins vs Zhang Anda

After years and years of failure on the big stage, Barry Hawkins has performed magnificently well at the Crucible in the last three editions. A final appearance, where he lost out to an unbeatable Ronnie O’Sullivan, and a pair of subsequent semi-final runs has seen the ‘Hawk’ become a constant of the single-table set-up come the final weekend. Can that run continue? The law of averages suggests that it surely must come to an end sooner or later and, despite a rare semi-final run at the Players Championship in March and a run to the final of the Masters in January, Hawkins’ results this campaign overall have not been good. 24 year-old Zhang Anda first qualified six years ago as a teenager and almost upset seven-time champion Stephen Hendry before succumbing in a final frame shoot-out. Zhang has slipped under the radar of several other Chinese competitors over the course of the last number of years but perhaps this is his moment to announce himself to the tens of millions watching in his home nation.

Prediction: Zhang

Ronnie O'Sullivan Face Off

Ronnie is the obvious pick but he lost to Bingham in last year’s quarter-finals.

Ronnie O’Sullivan vs David Gilbert

While all the top 16 members would have been desperate to avoid the likes of Ding and Carter, conversely all the qualifiers would have been praying not to see their name paired with Ronnie O’Sullivan. Apologies, then, to the unlucky David Gilbert, who has the task of taking on the overwhelming favourite for this year’s title. Gilbert won a great battle with Jack Lisowski in the final round of qualifying and earlier in the season reached his maiden ranking event final at the International Championship. So it’s not like the 34 year-old is a complete outsider. Yet, it’s going to be oh so tricky a task for the Englishman. O’Sullivan was sensational upon his return to the sport earlier this year when he emerged victorious at a canter in both the Masters and Welsh Open. The 40 year-old is bidding for a sixth world crown to join the Steve Davis and Ray Reardon on joint second in the all-time list, and his draw, if we’re being honest, has been kind. O’Sullivan can’t meet prime rival Mark Selby until the semi-finals while the likes of Higgins, Trump and Robertson, who aren’t intimidated by the ‘Rocket’, are on the other side of the draw. O’Sullivan grows into tournaments such as these and if he gets past the opening two rounds, like he should, then beware the rest of the field. Still, whether he can sustain it right the way to very end, temperament intact, is always an additional query.

Prediction: O’Sullivan

Mark Allen vs Mitchel Mann

Mitchell Mann is the only new face at the Crucible this year, making his championship debut after a tense 10-9 thriller over Dechawat Poomjaeng. In fact, Mann played 55 out of a possible 57 frames at Ponds Forge in order to ensure his return to the venue for the first time since he won Junior Pot Black as a 15 year-old in 2007. Mann’s a solid cueman and has worked hard on both his game and his life, after being diagnosed with Perthes syndrome as a young boy in which his aspirations of being a footballer were permanently curtailed. Yet, he’s up against a Northern Irishman who will feel like this is one of his best opportunities in Sheffield. Mark Allen finally won a ranking event on UK soil at the Players Championship last month and the fact that he achieved the feat while rarely producing his A-game will have pleased the 30 year-old greatly. Allen will be dangerous this month.

Prediction: Allen

Joe Perry vs Kyren Wilson

On paper, this first round match between Joe Perry and Kyren Wilson is hellish to predict. On the one hand you have Wilson, the Shanghai Masters champion and a young cueist who is widely hailed as a future consistent member of the elite bracket in the world rankings. Contrast that with Perry, a player who has been said consistent member for several years and who has continued to ply his trade strongly for much of this campaign to boot. Perry, though, despite a semi-final appearance in 2008 that really ought to have been at least a final, doesn’t have the best of records at the Crucible. Wilson is a star in the making and could see this year as an immediate chance to launch himself into the spotlight. But it really could go either way.

Prediction: Wilson

Michael White vs Sam Baird

Sam Baird looked perplexingly nonchalant in his post-match interview after ensuring his passage to the last 32 for only a second time. Perhaps that’s just his personality but it seemed a bit odd that a player so low down the rankings would appear so mundane at reaching the Crucible. In White, Baird faces a former quarter-finalist who missed out in 2015 after narrowly failing to break into the world’s top 16 in time. The former Indian Open champion is sure to be thrilled at returning and it’s difficult to see Baird posing much of a problem for the Welshman. In an extremely tough draw to predict overall, with 28 of the qualifiers ranked inside the world’s top 32, a win for White appears to be one of the more obvious results.

Mark Selby World Champion

What form will Selby bring to the table?

Prediction: White

Mark Selby vs Robert Milkins

Mark Selby will return to action, after a brief period on the sidelines due to personal reasons, against Robert Milkins. The world no.1 succumbed to the Curse of the Crucible 12 months ago when he lost as a first-time defending champion to Anthony McGill in the second round. There’s a lot less pressure on the 2014 champion this time around, especially considering he didn’t compete in the last two events on the calendar. Milkins qualifies for the Worlds for the seventh time and has twice made it past the opening test, most notably in 2013 when he ousted Neil Robertson. Milkins can score heavily and at an alarming rate, but his speed and a lack of tactical nous can at times be his downfall. Selby has the latter in abundance and, barring being possibly a touch cold following his absence, should move forward to later stages.

Prediction: Selby

Semi-Final Prediction: Ding to beat Higgins. O’Sullivan to beat Allen

Final Prediction: O’Sullivan to beat Ding

Photos courtesy of Monique Limbos.

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