Saturday, 9 April 2011

Crucible Countdown: 7 days to go

In a week, I'll be settling down on my sofa ready for the first session of this year's World Championship.

That thought alone motivates me to keep on writing my Crucible Countdown.

And with it being arguably the most open tournament there's ever been, how can we complain.

Yesterday, OnCue focused on the chances of some of the former winners. Today, I'm assessing the chances of some of the names in the frame to become first-time winners.

Here's half a dozen who I believe are in with a real shout...

Mark Selby

No-one has gathered more ranking points than Selby this season. He's been one of the real shining lights under Barry Hearn's new-look snooker calendar, rising to number two in the provisional world rankings. He's a player who has every ingredient in his game to become a world champion. His biggest strength is his snooker brain. He has such a relaxed attitude around the table but plays a good percentages game. This has seen him emerge as one of the most improved players on the circuit. He put himself on the map in 2007 when he progressed to his first Crucible final, and he's proved since that he wasn't just a flash in the pan. He's gone on to win the Masters twice and made it to another world final, but still has only one major ranking title to show for his vast improvement. It's hard to put a finger on why he hasn't won more but he definitely has the game to beat anyone. He has been given a kind draw in Sheffield this year, which saw his odds to lift the trophy immediately slashed. He looked in excellent form to make it to the China Open final last week and has been a consistent performer throughout the season. My only slight concern is the amount of tight matches he's lost this year. It'll be interesting to see whether this plays on his mind.

Stephen Maguire

The Scot hasn't been banded around as one of the household names to win this year's world title, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. He's a very capable player who has quietly enjoyed another good season. His highlight was reaching the Welsh Open final, where he narrowly lost out to John Higgins. He's also made it through to two finals in the season's all-new PTC series. His strength is in attack and if he finds form, he can trouble anyone and will quickly grow in confidence. He hasn't won a ranking event since the China Open in 2008 and my only reservation is his temperament. When things are not going his way, he isn't the best at keeping his frustrations inside. I wonder whether this spurs on his opponents.

Ding Junhui

The 24-year-old Chinese star is an immense talent. He's up to a career-high provisional world ranking of number three this season, and I'm told he's practicing as well as ever. Ding is already a four-time ranking event winner, and proved his pedigree with two victories at the UK Championship in 2005 and 2009. His break-building ability is breathtaking and his resilience has soared this season . It's worth mentioning though that he's yet to make it past the last 16 at the Crucible. I'd guess he's too good not to break that poor record soon, and it could be this year. But there must be some reason behind his struggles in Sheffield. The venue is quite costraphobic, and maybe it doesn't suit Ding's personality. But the way his game has developed this season, he's well-equipped to shrug off his under-achievement in Sheffield this time round.

Mark Allen

Northern Ireland's number one has built a reputation as an aggressive attacking player, who is exciting to watch. Yet to win a ranking event, but has showed signs that he's knocking on the door. He progressed to the semi-finals here in 2009 and enjoys playing at the Crucible. He's already defeated Ronnie O'Sullivan at this venue, so we know he doesn't suffer too much from nerves. He's a confident character both on and off the table, but recently announced he's been struggling against depression in recent months. This news came as a real surprise to me and it's a great shame, but it doesn't mean we should immediately write off his chances. Sometimes adversity can galvanise people. He's got a tough first round match against Matthew Stevens, which isn't always a bad thing, because it means he has to play at his best from the start. There's added pressure on him as well as he needs a win to secure his top 16 status. It could go either way for Allen this year but don't write him off.

Ali Carter

Anyone who's seen the front cover of the latest edition of Snookered magazine will have noticed Tiptree's finest wasn't pictured as one of players fighting for the Crucible title, but mark my words, he's in with a shout. Since making it the world final in 2008, Ali has won two other ranking events and despite often going under the radar, has enjoyed consistent runs to the business end of tournaments. Carter isn't the kind of player to complain, and he'll probably like the fact that he's not being talked about. He's coming back into form again and was only halted in the Welsh and China Opens by John Higgins and Selby, who were on top of their games. He's not an obvious choice to win the title but as he showed in 2008, he's got plenty of bottle and isn't afraid to scrap it out if needed. Not many of the favourites will enjoy playing him.

Matthew Stevens 

Two-time finalist Stevens can count himself unlucky not to have already chalked up a world title. He lost out to Mark Williams in 2000 and then again to Shaun Murphy in 2005. In both of these matches, he led after the first session 10-6 before surrendering his lead. This has led many to class him as a nearly man. At one stage, he was being classed in the same bracket to Jimmy White, as one of the greatest players never to have triumphed at the Crucible. That would have seemed a fair assessment as he tumbled down the rankings not so long ago. But he's back on the rise and playing as well as ever. He came through qualifying this year with a nail-biting 10-9 win against Fergal O'Brien  and having qualified for next season's Premier League, he's back to his best. He knows he can beat anyone and over the years he's enjoyed plenty of success over the longer distance matches.

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