The first round of the 2018 Masters reached its conclusion on Wednesday, meaning there are now only eight players left in the hunt for glory at the Alexandra Palace in London.
Before the tournament began, Ronnie O’Sullivan was the clear favourite but I suggested that it was important to see how the early exchanges transpired before being able to properly offer a prediction as to who might emerge with the Paul Hunter trophy.
Well, if the last 16 revealed anything conclusively, it was that the “Rocket” absolutely represents the player that all the other seven have to strive to beat over the upcoming few days.
While the majority of the opening ties were close affairs, O’Sullivan, by contrast, produced a devastating display to pummel Marco Fu in a whitewash massacre that surely would have sent a message of fear to his opponents in the draw.
It’s amazing to think that at 42 years of age, O’Sullivan might actually be playing the most complete snooker of his entire career and at this stage it would be a pretty big surprise to see him miss out on what would be a third Masters crown in a row, a record eighth in total, and a record 19th Triple Crown title to boot.
Of course, Fu wasn’t able to offer anything in the way of an effective challenge so it’ll be interesting to see how O’Sullivan would react to a sterner test in the later rounds.
Mark Allen will be the next player up to have a crack at inflicting a first defeat in London for the five-time world champion since 2015 after the Northern Irishman bettered debutant Luca Brecel 6-3 – the only other first-round fixture that didn’t amass at least ten frames.
Allen, now well into his 30s, is still searching for a maiden triumph in one of the major tournaments but has at least demonstrated a return to form this season after the dismal last campaign that put his top 16 membership under threat.
The Antrim man has the talent to succeed, of that there is no question, but whether or not he has the composure or consistency to prevail on the main stage remains debatable.
Allen gets a good rep, often deserved, for being a dogged fighter who never gives up but, even when he is in a seemingly commanding position, too many of his games needlessly turn into wars.
With that said, if he gets himself in front against O’Sullivan it’s vital that he keeps his foot on the gas if he is to have a greater chance of causing an upset.
Allen famously managed to do that in the 2009 World Championship when he recorded one of his greatest career wins over the then-defending Crucible champion, but O’Sullivan has generally had the upper hand in their head-to-heads since – although Allen did win their only prior Masters encounter in 2011.
While the O’Sullivan and Allen match promises a potentially entertaining battle, the other side of the draw boasts probably the clash of the quarter-finals.
English duo Shaun Murphy and Judd Trump set up a meeting with one another after respective 6-4 triumphs against Ali Carter and Liang Wenbo.
The winner of this tie could feasibly constitute the biggest threat to O’Sullivan’s title tilt, especially as the pair of them knows how to overcome the former world number one in important finals.
In fact, two of the most recent showdowns for glory on English soil have been contested between O’Sullivan and Murphy, who has been in terrific form this term already, defined by his triumph in the Champion of Champions a couple of months ago.
Murphy and Trump are two of the most attacking cueists in the game so the 2,000-odd fans who have tickets for this show on Friday could be in for a proper treat.
Whereas the “Magician” can always fall back on the fact that he has prevailed at least once in all of the major competitions, 28 year-old Trump is still desperately trying to fulfil his ambition of attaining more silverware on the grandstand occasions.
Their head-to-head record is close with Trump just about edging it in his favour, albeit Murphy did win their Gibraltar Open final bout in March of last year.
Meanwhile, the other last eight encounters feature the remaining two names who have famously, alongside O’Sullivan, made up the legendary triumvirate “Class of 1992” stable.
John Higgins and Mark Williams, both two-time winners in their own right, are each set to be challenged by inexperienced Masters competitors who have failed to ever make it beyond this stage in proceedings.
Higgins and Williams have proved time and time again that they are not to be written off, not least in their first-round matches when they both reversed late deficits to pinch victories against Anthony McGill and world champion Mark Selby respectively.
Higgins’ reward is a date with Ryan Day, whom he has a far superior advantage over from their previous clashes, while Mark Williams will face Kyren Wilson on Thursday evening.
It’s a tough one because Higgins doesn’t really have a strong overall record in this event, with numerous early exits to his name, while Williams is up against a young and formidable foe who has the pedigree to join the highest echelons of the sport in the years to come.
Yet, there has been a sense this season that O’Sullivan, Higgins, and Williams – with six titles won between them since the summer already – are pulling each other along to even greater heights, prolonging the success in their already illustrious careers.
Wouldn’t it be quite something if the three of them all qualified for the last four this weekend? It would be foolish to bet against it.
Live coverage continues on the BBC and Eurosport.
Click here to view the draw. (Times: CET)