There might still be a lot to play for between now and the snooker World Championship – but it’s around this time every year when players and fans begin to think about the end-of-season month in Sheffield.
Whether by its association with the Triple Crown, the BBC, or something else completely, some degree of attention usually turns to the Crucible following the conclusion of the prestigious Masters.
Mark Allen emerged victorious at the Alexandra Palace on Sunday to claim his maiden major title and the Northern Irishman’s snooker odds for the Worlds have shortened to around 22/1 with most major online bookmakers.
After his breakthrough triumph against Kyren Wilson in London, Allen doesn’t seem like a bad choice but, of course, there’s a big difference between the shorter format of practically every other tournament on the calendar and the unique longer setup only created at the snooker World Championship.
Allen has reached the single table scenario just once in Sheffield, way back in 2009 when he shocked then defending champion Ronnie O’Sullivan en route to the last four.
O’Sullivan remains the obvious favourite again this year despite the fact that he has threatened on numerous occasions lately to skip the 2018 edition.
In any case, the five-time champion has struggled in recent years to cope with the “Marathon of the Mind”, failing to go beyond the quarter-finals stage since 2014 – when he lost in the final to Mark Selby.
Indeed, Selby has been the dominant and reliable force at the Crucible since then, tasting success in three out of the last four championships, including in 2017 when he beat John Higgins in the final to defend his crown.
The runaway world number one, who could become only the third player in the Crucible era to lift the trophy three times in a row, is just behind O’Sullivan in the snooker odds.
Meanwhile, Judd Trump and Ding Junhui are two players who, like Allen, will be desperate to win the snooker World Championship for the first time in their careers but, even though they are next in line for the favourites tag, any fan would be cautious when tipping either of them as possible champions.
That’s because Trump is building up an unwanted history of crumbling in major events, such as how he squandered a 5-2 lead against Wilson in the semi-finals of the Masters on Saturday, while Ding has endured a dreadful run of form in general for the last six or so months.
The smarter money at present appears to possibly lie with someone like Shaun Murphy, a proven winner in Sheffield and a player who has been in form for the majority of this campaign with a Champion of Champions title under his belt along with appearances in a number of other big finals.
Murphy’s snooker odds with the bookies are around 25/1 while Masters runner-up Wilson, whose temperament on the big occasion for such a young age appears generally sound, can be got for around 33/1.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that between now and April there are still another seven ranking events to be contested and there’ll be plenty of other players who will be hoping to play themselves into form in that period.
By contrast, a player like Allen, who stands near the bottom of the top 16 in the provisional world rankings, will be looking over his shoulder for the remainder of the campaign because every contender below that bracket at the final cut-off point will be forced into the dreaded snooker World Championship qualifiers at the English Institute of Sport, where three gruelling victories will be required to qualify for the main event.
The Northern Irishman might currently be talked about as a potential champion at the Crucible but he won’t be able to do much if he’s not even there and, at 16th provisionally in the standings, is in drastic need of a big performance in some upcoming ranking tournaments.
In fact, it’s difficult to discount any player from making a giant leap into the top 16, and thus gaining automatic qualification, between now and the end of this term.
The upcoming World Grand Prix has a £100,000 top prize, the Players Championship increases to £125,000 for the winner’s cheque, while the revamped China Open – the penultimate ranking event of the season – will offer a first place jackpot of a whopping £225,000 this year.
Allen can guarantee his place at the Crucible by continuing his good recent form in an event like those three but a let up could allow one of the chasing pack to force him, or the other marquee names just above him in the rankings like former world champions Neil Robertson and Stuart Bingham, into the qualifiers.
You can be sure that, with places in the snooker World Championship so coveted, the Race to the Crucible this year and the subsequent jostle for the sport’s blue riband title will be as fascinating as ever.