From 144, only eight remain in the hunt to claim the 2016 Betfred World Championship in Sheffield.
It’s certainly not the octet that most people predicted to be featuring at this stage of proceedings at the Crucible Theatre.
Several of the expected heavy hitters have fallen by the wayside but there’s still plenty of cue power left to ensure that the upcoming week will be a fascinating conclusion to this year’s edition.
Let’s take a look at each of the four quarter-finals which take place today and on Wednesday, as we draw closer to the single table set-up inside the cauldron arena.
(Click on the match to view their head-to-head records – from cuetracker.net)
Alan McManus vs John Higgins
(Tues: 2:30pm, Wed: 10am, 7pm)
At the top of the draw is a battle between two Scottish pals – John Higgins and Alan McManus. Higgins has gone somewhat under the radar, which is peculiar for a four-time champion with oodles of experience on the big stage. The 40 year-old has coasted to a brace of victories over formidable foes in Ryan Day and Ricky Walden, and many are now turning their attention to the Glaswegian as he attempts to land a fifth world crown – five years after his last success.
Against fellow veteran McManus, it is commonly predicted that Higgins will have too much in every department, but particularly scoring, for his Glaswegian counterpart. Yet, McManus has a strong record against his friend, with two first round triumphs at the Crucible to his name. Higgins, though, did win their one meeting over the best of 25 frames when they clashed in the last 16 in 1996.
McManus has done superbly well to embark on a second quarter-final run in three seasons – now at the ripe age of 45. Although he is more animated than in the past, the former Masters champion still possesses one of the game’s best temperaments and he’ll certainly not be overawed by the occasion. It’s a question of whether he can simply pot enough balls in order to keep pace with Higgins. It’d be foolish to write McManus off completely but his lack of scoring prowess is likely to be his ultimate downfall.
Ding Junhui vs Mark Williams
(Tues: 10am, 7pm, Wed: 2:30pm)
Is this Ding’s year? I must confess that I’m not a huge gambler but after Ding’s performances in the Welsh Open and World Grand Prix I decided to put a sneaky each way bet on him at 22/1 to win his maiden world crown this year. Then, upon the completion of the first round draw I was still confident that he would make the final, but thought that Ronnie O’Sullivan’s route to the final on the other side of the draw was straightforward enough that Ding wouldn’t have a chance against the ‘Rocket’ in a showdown for the trophy. But that equation is no more as Ronnie bowed out last night. And Ding now has a huge chance to appease the tens of millions of Chinese fans who expect him to succeed.
Against both Martin Gould and Judd Trump the 29 year-old won despite not playing quite at his best, which is a trait he has rarely possessed in Sheffield throughout his career. In Mark Williams, Ding comes up against a competitor with tonnes of experience and two world titles already to his name. The Welshman is undoubtedly a dark horse but is he playing well enough to sustain a challenge that will potentially last a further 11 sessions of snooker? I’m not so sure. Williams was perhaps fortunate in the second round that he came up against the inexperienced Michael Holt, who ought to have punished the 41 year-old’s meagre opening exchanges but came out of it disappointingly all-square.
Ding has no reason to be overly afraid of Williams but the question will continue to remain as to whether he can handle the pressure. There has been a voodoo cast over his performances at the Crucible in the past but he seems more at peace with his emotions on this occasion, and if he can find his A-game he will be extremely difficult to stop.
Marco Fu vs Barry Hawkins
(Tues: 2:30pm, Wed: 2:30pm, 7pm)
Most people thought this quarter-final would be contested between Shaun Murphy and Ronnie O’Sullivan, but it’s two of the game’s consummate professionals who instead remain in the hunt for a first world crown. Hawkins produced the performance of the tournament and his lifetime as he held off O’Sullivan for a dramatic 13-12 triumph in the second round on Monday. Considering his previous record against the five-time world champion and how heavily O’Sullivan scored, it was an incredible display. Hawkins is immediately being tipped as someone who could go on and win it but there’s a big task ahead of him. He must immediately come down from the dizzying, exhausting high of his titanic win.
Marco Fu, on the other hand, hasn’t played since Friday when he became the first player into the last eight by beating Anthony McGill in what seems like an age ago. The Hong Kong native will be much the fresher and that could be advantageous as he attempts to reach the last four for only the second time in his career.
Hawkins, though, seems to be building some kind of an aura around him at the Crucible. The two-time ranking event winner is the only cueist who has reached at least the semi-finals in each of the last three years – of course placing runner-up in 2013. Hawkins and Fu have a close head-to-head record and, indeed, most of their encounters have gone right down to wire. Can Hawkins handle another marathon? Perhaps in this tie, yes. But another tight tussle might have a detrimental affect on his hopes of later landing the title.
Kyren Wilson vs Mark Selby
(Tues: 10am, 7pm, Wed: 10am)
The last quarter-final throws up an intriguing tie between world no.1 Mark Selby and the player who everyone believes to be the next really big name in Kyren Wilson. The latter announced himself into the higher echelons earlier this campaign when he emerged as a qualifier to win the Shanghai Masters. Can he do likewise to become only the third qualifier to collect the World Championship trophy? He’s certainly capable, but he comes up against a man who is a master at being able to win despite not producing his best form.
Selby looked in danger at times after a gutsy challenge from lowly ranked Sam Baird but eventually scrambled over the winning line with a frame to spare. The 2014 champion is clearly not performing to his highest standard but that can all change. In Wilson, he comes up against a major threat, but possibly one that won’t bear fruit on this stage for another couple of years. Wilson’s 13-9 win over Mark Allen was a good achievement, but there were plenty of suspect points that complimented the positives. Okay, he raced into what eventually transpired into an unassailable 7-0 lead. However, he did have two potentially damaging periods where he surrendered five frames, and then another four later on, on the trot.
Wilson won’t be able to afford to do that against Selby. This could be a step too far for the talented 24 year-old but, whatever happens, he has already proven his pedigree and it’s likely we’re going to see a lot of him on our screens in the future.