Monday, 16 April 2012

Crucible Countdown: The draw

This year's first round draw is loaded with absolutely mouth-watering matches.

But it was always going to happen. Among the seeded players we have more people capable of winning the World Championship than perhaps ever before. Among the qualifiers we have one of the most exciting and diverse set of playing styles.

With this kind of mix of player at our disposal, the draw was only ever going one way.

I've had time to have a good look at the draw. Here are my reactions to the opening 16 matches at the Crucible...

John Higgins v Liang Wenbo

An excellent curtain-raising match at the Crucible. Higgins has struggled for form this season and would have wanted an easier starter. Wenbo is a fearless player who could easily find his groove and cause some problems. He seems much happier since moving away from his former base in Sheffield and it wouldn't surprise me to see him get back to somewhere near his best. He'll need to play well because Higgins has experience on his side on the big stage.

Stuart Bingham v Stephen Hendry

A re-run of an absolute classic back in 2000. Stuart made his snooker name by beating Hendry in the first round clash over a decade ago. Bingham has come a long way since then and Stephen struggles against the top 16 players. He'll be happy just to be back after having to fight through the qualifiers to continue his run of consecutive years at the Crucible. The crowd will be behind Hendry and I expect this to be a close match.

Stephen Maguire v Luca Brecel

Maguire is the form man and should win this against the 17-year-old Crucible novice. But the young Belgian has won four matches to get here and has a massive chance to put himself on the map. Luca is renowned for his extreme composure around the table. He's a future star in the making and should focus on enjoying this. All the pressure is on Maguire. You'd expect him to have too much and some people are even tipping him to go all the way but funnier things have happened.

Graeme Dott v Joe Perry

Two very experienced players. Dott is annually written off at the World Championship but regularly produces his best at this tournament. He's played in three Crucible finals and you can't discount another. Perry has got as far as the semi-final here himself. He's had a solid season and is more than capable. Not one of the headline matches but expect a good tussle.

Shaun Murphy v Jamie Jones

This is the highlight of what has been an excellent season for Welshman Jones. He's been steadily boiling away throughout the campaign and has looked like one of the real dangermen in the qualifiers. Murphy won the event in 2005 and is well equipped to do well over the longer matches.  The quality of scoring should be high in this match as both like to pot early. This isn't a formality for Shaun. He knows a decent test awaits but a win would set him up perfectly.

Stephen Lee v Andrew Higginson

Lee couldn't come into this tournament in any better form. If he continues playing like he has, Higginson will be powerless. Andrew is a good all-rounder but Lee is flowing as well as ever. I can't see anything other than a seed win. Stephen could go deep into the second week.

Ali Carter v Mark Davis

Hardly a glamour tie and a possible win for the qualifier on the cards. It's tough watching Ali struggle so badly and you do fear his days in the game could be numbered. He doesn't look at all happy playing snooker as he continues to battle against crohn's disease. Mark on the other hand is still as thirsty as ever at the age of 39. He's done well to climb the rankings in recent seasons owing to great consistency. He goes quietly about his business and recorded an impressive 10-5 win against Robert Milkins in the qualifiers to get here.
Judd Trump v Dominic Dale

A difficult tie for Dominic who was unlucky to draw him in the UK Championship as well. People will call this a banker but Dale has had a good season and has the experience not to be scared of anyone. He'll need a gameplan to keep Judd on a leash but can take plenty of heart from reaching the event with an emphatic win against Ben Woollaston. I expect Judd to boss this one but Dominic can be relied upon to score if he gets chances from Trump missing some of his more attacking shots. Dale needs to take his chances when they come along. Trump will enjoy being back in front of the Sheffield crowd to put on a show. He's the favourite for the title and will take some stopping.

Mark Williams v Liu Chuang

Both players love to attack. This could be an exciting match. Mark needs to find some inspiration from somewhere after not finding his best since way back earlier in the season. Liu is one of a record four Chinese players at the Crucible players and was made to work hard for his place. He crept past Rod Lawler, Jimmy White and Jamie Cope to make it. His appearance here will evoke memories of his Crucible shock debut in 2008 where he locked horns with Ronnie O'Sullivan in round one. Williams may benefit from what is likely to be an open game and has the no-how to go far again.

Ronnie O'Sullivan v Peter Ebdon

The headline match and the one the entire snooker world was crying out for. O'Sullivan has a decent record against EbdonEbdon using tactically slow play to advance. Peter comes into this match off the back of winning the China Open and a 10-0 drubbing of Alfie Burden in the cubicles. Ronnie must be patient but fans will worry Peter could bog him down. If he gets on top of this match and wins it, he could do well this year. This is the match you don't want to miss.

Martin Gould v Dave Gilbert

This should be an open and entertaining match. Gould is low on confidence but capable of producing a potting masterclass. The Crucible could bring out the best of him. Gilbert has shown in qualifying what a good player we all know he is. He won four matches against Stuart Carrington, Jimmy Robertson, Mike Dunn and Fergal O'Brien to earn his place. That momentum should count for something but his temperament will be tested to the limit.

Neil Robertson v Ken Doherty

The battle of two great world champions. Robertson comes highly tipped this year and looks like he has the complete package to challenge for a second world title. He's had a fantastic season which has included a BBC win already at the Masters. He's got the steel and the ability to go all the way. A heavy favourite but you know he'll take nothing for granted. Doherty is guaranteed a warm Sheffield welcome with the fans fondly remembering his triumph in 1997. He'll need to pull out all the stops to make a match of this one. 

Ding Junhui v Ryan Day

Ding proved many people wrong with a spirited run to the semi-finals at the Crucible a year ago. This was the first time he'd gone past the second round and showed he could deliver on the biggest stage. Only an inspirational performance by Judd stopped him making the final. A lot of people are tipping him to build on that. He's got a difficult looking first match against Ryan. He had to come from behind to beat Gerard Greene and qualify but is always dangerous as he's been at the top end of the rankings before.

Mark Allen v Cao Yupeng

The year for Northern Ireland's number one to shine according to many. Allen has proved this season he's capable of winning titles and looks ready for a decent crack at the big one. Yupeng makes his debut here after sneaking his place with a tight 10-9 win versus Tom Ford in the final qualifying match.  He'll have to be at his best to keep in touch but this is a great chance to showcase his talents.

Matthew Stevens v Marco Fu

One of the toughest matches to call in round one. Two very classy players who can both beat anyone on their day. They've both been to finals before and can play in the big matches. You'd not expect either of these to win the title but they could be a danger if confidence starts to build. This will be a decent match to sit back and enjoy.

Mark Selby v Barry Hawkins

A big tournament for the world number one. He needs to prove himself on the biggest stage and will feel this is a title that has evaded him. Everything is in place for him to have a go. He has the good all-round game to challenge. His first round match is tough. Hawkins is a proficient scorer and enjoyed a decent run to the second round last season. He knocked out Maguire before losing on a decider to Allen for a place in the last eight. He'll be second favourite here. Big things are expected of Selby this time.

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