Monday, 21 March 2011

Crucible draw: first thoughts

Arriving at Wembley Stadium usually fills me a special feeling.

My last two trips to this wonderful arena were to watch my football team - Tottenham Hotspur - play in two cup finals.

Although today’s visit was for totally different reasons, I still got that slight tingle of excitement I’ve now come to expect.

While I wasn’t due to see any sporting action, this was the moment where the snooker season suddenly shifts up a gear.

Barry Hearn has made plenty of exciting changes to the sport this season, and it’s fair to say we’ve never had it so good.

When you think that Shaun Murphy was playing in his 94th match of the season last night and hardly a weekend has gone by this season without any competitive action, you certainly can’t complain.

We’ve had an action-packed calendar to get our teeth into, and this has thrown up plenty of matches to remember.

But no matter what has gone, the World Championship still remains the ace in the snooker pack. It’s still the daddy.

And with players enjoying more match practice this season than ever before and their competitive edge at a mind-blowing high, this year’s Crucible competition is threatening to be a classic.

Now the draw has been made, the countdown begins. You’ll probably all agree the draw is pretty special too, with some tasty ties in store.

Here are my first thoughts on the round of 32 matches...

Jamie Cope v Andrew Pagett. Crucible debutant Pagett won’t be too displeased with this draw. Cope is an attacking player, who although can score heavily, will leave chances. All the top 16 players are tough to beat but Cope is probably one of the more vulnerable seeded players on paper. Don’t write a shock off.

Ding Junhui v Jamie Burnett. Big things are expected this year of the Chinese star. This season he’s proved he’s got more resilience and has a better temperament than in years gone by. He’s beginning to come of age and he’ll be a strong favourite in the opening round. It's about time he enjoyed a run in Sheffield.

John Higgins v Stephen Lee. A repeat of the UK Championship first round clash. Lee gave Higgins a good run for his money in that one and you’d expect him to make it difficult for him again. Neither player will be happy with the draw. Higgins has been dynamite since his return, while Lee would have been player one all the top 16 wanted to avoid.

Neil Robertson v Judd Trump. A great curtain-raising match for this year’s tournament. Both players like to attack, so this match will definitely be free-flowing. Robertson is a very cool customer and has a great chance of becoming the only first-time champion to retain his crown. He has habit of going quiet at points in the season but you’d have to fancy him to come to form in time for the big one.

Mark Allen V Matthew Stevens. This match really is a mouth-watering prospect. Two players in excellent form and both capable of going all the way. It should be an open match with both of them out to score. Hard to pick a winner, but whoever does come out on top will go into the rest of the competition brimming with confidence.

Mark Williams v Ryan Day. An all-Welsh battle between another two form players. Close friends off the table and both completely laid back on the table. One of the stand-out matches in the first round. A win for Williams will assure him of the world number one ranking at the end of the season.

Stephen Maguire v Barry Hawkins. Another two players who are extremely good friends. Hawkins will be playing at the Crucible for a sixth successive year, while Maguire hasn't progressed to the semi-finals since 2007.

Ronnie O’Sullivan v Dominic Dale. Anything could happen in this match. Ronnie is capable of turning up and p-laying championship-winning snooker. But he's also capable of turning up and imploding. Dale drifts in and out of form too. There will be a good crowd in. I wouldn't want to miss this one.

Shaun Murphy v Marcus Campbell. The Magician is a heavy favourite in this clash and rightly so. He's a class act and always plays his best snooker in the longer format matches. He's a player who can win the title, but Campbell has had an impressive season and will make it difficult for him.

Graeme Dott v Mark King. This has the makings of an extremely tight match. They're both hard players and won't want to give an inch. It's one of the matches I can see going the full distance. The safety will be of the highest order, but they can both play as well. I'm looking forward to this one.

Stephen Hendry v Joe Perry. Both players will be satisfied with this draw. Hendry needs a good run to secure his long-term top 16 future and in fairness he could have drawn tougher, but Perry will think he stands a chance of progressing as well. One of the most difficult matches to call.

Ali Carter v Dave Harold. This will be another difficult match. Harold will be out to stifle Carter, but I think he has the mental toughness to ride it out. Carter should come through this but he'll have to fight.

Peter Ebdon v Stuart Bingham. There might not be a more important match in the opening round at the Crucible than this. These players are extremely close to each other in the rankings and the winner will have a real edge in securing a place in the top 16.

Mark Selby v Jimmy Robertson. Selby has had his odds for the title slashed today but this isn't an easy first round game. Robertson can enjoy himself and plays with nothing to lose. If the Jester doesn't get an early lead, he may become twitchy.

Marco Fu v Martin Gould. A repeat of last year's Crucible first round. Gould won last time out but Fu has had a better season this than last. This will be a close match but an appealing one fro the crowd. They're both attractive players to watch.

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