Snooker News

Northern Ireland Open: Quarter-Final Preview

Only one player currently ranked inside the top 16 in the world features in the last eight as a surprise line-up contends for Northern Ireland Open glory this weekend in Belfast.

Mark Williams Shanghai (WS)

Williams last won a ranking event at the 2011 German Masters. Photo credit: World Snooker

Mark Williams has been an onlooker this season as his contemporaries Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins continued to notch up the ranking event titles and the Welshman now has a glorious opportunity to join them on the champion’s podium again after reaching the quarter-finals at the Waterfront Hall.

The 42 year-old has tasted some success in recent months following his victory in the Six Red World Championship, but it’s been almost seven years since he collected the 18th and last of his ranking trophies.

Williams has put himself in the position to threaten for silverware on numerous occasions since then, with four runners-up finishes and numerous other semi-finals in that spell.

However, the two-time world champion will rarely have a better chance than he does this week with all the marquee men already accounted for.

Veteran Mike Dunn, 48th in the world, is the highest ranked competitor remaining in his half of the draw.

Somewhat oddly, though, the 46 year-old Englishman has a superior head-to-head record against Williams with four triumphs from their previous five clashes.

In fact, Williams has only gotten one over the 2014 China Open semi-finalist in the single frame Shoot-Out so, while he will undoubtedly still be a heavy favourite, his safe passage through to the last four is by no means a foregone conclusion.

Awaiting the winner of that affair will be either Li Yuan or Elliot Slessor, two players who arguably nobody would have predicted getting this far and who now have a wonderful chance to extend their run.

28 year-old rookie Li booked his spot courtesy of a deciding frame clincher against Anthony McGill and a 4-1 victory over Gary Wilson while Slessor supported his stunning triumph against form player Ronnie O’Sullivan with a second 4-1 scoreline over Sam Craigie.

On the other side of the draw, three Chinese cueists remain in the hunt for the £70,000 top prize and the second Home Nations series title of the campaign.

Yan Bingtao, who had knocked out then reigning English Open champion Liang Wenbo in Barnsley, also accounted for Belfast’s defending winner Mark King in the last 32 before holding off Ryan Day in a decider.

The 17 year-old reached the semi-final of the International Championship last month and, in a season where the Chinese contingent has begun to strut their stuff on a more regular basis, Yan possibly looks the one most poised to emerge with an actual title to support his rapid improvement on the circuit.

Yan, the 2015 World Cup winner alongside Zhou Yuelong, will tackle Robert Milkins for a semi-final berth after the Englishman overcame two former ranking event winners in Neil Robertson and Ricky Walden.

Milkins hasn’t performed too consistently on the tour of late but does know what it takes to reach the last four, having done so six times in his career to date.

Meanwhile, Tian Pengfei, who has been on the Main Tour for a decade, reached this stage of a ranking tournament for the first time in his career, taking advantage of an open bracket following his gutsy defeat of home favourite Mark Allen in the second round.

The 30 year-old faces teenager Lu Haotian, who is finally beginning to translate his obvious talent into results on the professional scene.

In 2012, he became the youngest player to capture the World Under-21 Championship and in the same year went on an astounding run to the last eight of the International Championship in Chengdu.

This charge to the quarter-finals represents his first appearance at this hurdle since so either Lu or Tian will be embarking on new territory if they can manage victory and qualify for the single table set-up on Saturday.

It’s an interesting conclusion in store then and perhaps in keeping with this event after last year’s edition followed a similar guise with a surprise champion crowned in Mark King.

That said, the early demise of all the top players possibly underlines two things quite perfectly.

The notion that best-of-seven frame ties can at times be a lottery has certainly been highlighted while the ridiculous schedule of late, in which most of the top 16 players have been back and forth between the UK and China on a weekly basis, has maybe finally caught up with the majority of them.

Live coverage continues on Eurosport and Quest TV.

Click here to view the draw. (Times: CET)

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