Sunday is fast approaching and it’s the first huge event of 2019 as the Masters commences at the Alexandra Palace.
Sixteen of the best players in the world will assemble in London for the most prestigious invitational on the snooker calendar.
Half of the high-quality field represent former champions, including 2018 winner Mark Allen who returns to the scene of his maiden major triumph.
The Northern Irishman has been in the most consistent form of his career since that landmark victory over Kyren Wilson twelve months ago, also reaching the final of the UK Championship in between ranking event successes in the International Championship and Scottish Open.
Allen faces Luca Brecel in the last 16 on the opening afternoon and will be a heavy favourite against the young Belgian.
Brecel remains in the top 16 of the world rankings thanks to his lucrative China Championship glory last season but has been in abysmal form in general of late.
The favourite again this year is obviously Ronnie O’Sullivan, who suffered a surprise 6-1 defeat to Allen in last year’s quarter-finals.
The “Rocket” is a record seven-time winner of the Masters and has claimed the title in three out of the last five editions.
O’Sullivan, who overcame Allen to capture a record-breaking 19th career Triple Crown event in York last month, faces Stuart Bingham in his opening fixture.
The 43 year-old has gone on to claim silverware the last three times that he has played and beaten Bingham, including in this campaign’s Shanghai Masters and Champion of Champions.
Like the Masters, those two tournaments follow formats that boast only elite competitors and it is in these kinds of situations where O’Sullivan tends to thrive the most.
Meanwhile, the tie of the first round is arguably the intriguing battle between English rivals Judd Trump and Kyren Wilson.
There’s not a lot of love lost between this pair with the former feeling particularly perplexed at why Wilson gains so many plaudits despite achieving less in the game.
The duo contested a memorable semi-final at the Ally Pally in 2018 with Trump squandering a three-frame advantage in a 6-5 reverse.
On that occasion, Wilson’s temperament was the difference and it is in this area where the Kettering cueist possibly possesses an advantage.
Another mouthwatering fixture that was pulled out of the Masters hat is the one between world champion Mark Williams and Australia’s Neil Robertson.
Both former Masters winners, Robertson will perhaps go into this match as the marginal favourite given the contrasting preparations they have made over the brief winter off-period.
While Williams was skulling another beer as he continues his seemingly endless celebration of his Crucible triumph, Robertson was straight back to business on New Year’s Day.
The 36 year-old, who got engaged to long-term partner Mille on Christmas Day, duly won Group One of the Championship League.
Me and my lucky charm getting ready for the crucible in may 🚢🚢🍻🍻😎😎😎 pic.twitter.com/Xzut60EdZL
— MARK WILLIAMS M.B.E (@markwil147) January 2, 2019
In what appears to be an especially loaded bottom half, Mark Selby takes on Stephen Maguire and Shaun Murphy meets Barry Hawkins.
Maguire, a four-time semi-finalist, qualified for the first time in three years but his reward is a date with the world number one and three-time former champion.
The affair between Murphy and Hawkins is potentially the most difficult to predict with two players who, on any given day, can meet any challenge.
The remaining encounters see two-time champion John Higgins take on Ryan Day while 2011 winner Ding Junhui entertains Jack Lisowski.
The latter is the only debutant in this year’s Masters so will be somewhat of an unknown prospect.
Lisowski has the kind of devastating attacking quality that can make him extremely dangerous and exciting to watch.
The 27 year-old’s displays over the last year or so are what have seen him experience a dramatic surge up the rankings list and he is certainly included in the line-up on merit.
Yet, there are question marks surrounding his ability to play well when not producing his A-game – highlighted by a spectacular meltdown in the second round of the 2018 World Championship and a series of defeats from winning positions this campaign.
Against Ding, though, the “Dude” comes up against a player who is struggling, with a diabolical recent record at the Masters by notching up only one match victory since he won the tournament eight years ago.
Meanwhile, Higgins and Day is probably the least eye-catching clash out of the lot but that’s not to say that it can’t generate a good show.
Higgins, by his own admission, has fallen out of love with the game after two heart-wrenching final defeats in Sheffield but a Masters run could be just the tonic for the Scot to rediscover his mojo.
As ever, the Alexandra Palace will prove an electrifying backdrop with a packed arena producing a boisterous atmosphere in the English capital.
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