With the qualification event for the all-important Betfred.com World Championship set to get underway this coming Friday, I thought that it would be interesting to take a look at the draw and make some predictions as to who will make it all the way to the Crucible in April…
The Top Quarter
|Round One||Round Two||Round Three||Round Four|
|Lee Page||–||Peter Lines||–||Marcus Campbell||–||Matthew Stevens||–|
|Winner of Prelim 1||–||–||–||–||–||–||–|
|Matt Selt||–||Barry Pinches||–||Mark Davis||–||Dave Harold||–|
|Stephen Rowlings||–||Joe Delaney||–||Adrian Gunnell||–||Steve Davis||–|
|Lee Spick||–||Paul Davies||–||Alan McManus||–||Fergal O’Brien||–|
The top section of the draw (or the Davi(e)s), quarter as it could be labelled given the presence of Steve, Mark and Paul), is one bursting at the seams with experience with a a six-time World Champion, a twice World finalist and a former Masters champion all involved.
The first path to the Crucible is headed by Welshman Matthew Stevens who of course reached the final back in both 2000 and 2005. Having failed to make the venue last year for the first time since 1997 as he went down to the in-form Martin Gould, Matthew will be keen to make amends this time around, though his draw could have been kinder as he is set to face either Lee Page, Peter Lines or Scot Marcus Campbell in his qualifying match. There is also the chance that James Wattana or one of the pre-qualifiers could make it through, indeed another strong run for Wattana cannot be ruled out after his terrific China Open campaign so far.
Compared to a year ago Matthew seems to be in better form, having won four of his five qualifying matches this season and in any case he has always been something of a specialist when it comes to the longer format matches. His draw is not straightforward however as Leeds’ Peter Lines has upset a number of top players this season already, particularly as he reached the quarter-finals of the UK Championship, though it should be noted that he has not won a ranking event match since that run. The gritty Marcus Campbell meanwhile is a player who will never go down without a fight and could cause problems.
Ultimately though while Marcus is an experienced pro who is capable of causing an upset and Peter is steadily climbing up the rankings, I do expect Stevens to progress and keep his slim hopes of a return to the top 16 at the end of the season alive.
In Matt Selt and Thepchaiya un-Nooh, the second section of this quarter has two promising young players set to meet in what is for me, on paper, one of the most appealing first round matches of this year’s draw. From there however it is experience all the way with Barry Pinches, Mark Davis and 43-year-old Dave Harold who made his Crucible debut back in 1994.
Of the sections in the draw this is arguably one of the toughest to call as all of the players in it with the exception of Thepchaiya have reached at least one venue stage this season, though top seed Dave Harold has struggled and qualified for just the one, so looks vulnerable.
Who therefore is best placed to take advantage? Matt Selt by qualifying for the Shanghai Masters and the Grand Prix has shown that he is capable of winning four matches to reach a venue but perhaps tellingly has not done it before over a longer format. There is a first time for everything though, or so the saying goes…
After a poor 2008/9 Barry Pinches has improved somewhat this campaign, winning matches in three of the five tournaments played and he undoubtedly has the ability to make it back to the Crucible for the first time since 2005. The real danger for me though would be Six-Red World Champion Mark Davis who over the last two seasons has been in the form of his life and looks set to move up into the top 32 of the world rankings for the first time at the end of the season.
As a result I feel that although Dave will make things difficult, Mark Davis is my favourite to progress to the Crucible stage for the first time since 2008.
And he could well be joined there by his well-known namesake Steve who will be attempting to qualify for the Crucible for an astonishing 30th time.
Standing in his way will be one of Stephen Rowlings, Sam Baird, Joe Delaney and Adrian Gunnell, all good players though with all due respect, probably not the most dangerous players that Steve could have drawn.
That said, since reaching a couple of quarter-finals at the start of 2008/9, the six-times world champion has been in far from sparkling form and has won just one match this season, 9-7 against Michael Judge at the UK qualifiers. Of his potential opponents Adrian Gunnell has been in reasonable shape recently, making the semi-finals of the most recent Pro Challenge event, though he did suffer two agonising defeats to Davis last season and perhaps these could be in his mind if he were to meet him again. Elsewhere Joe Delaney has qualified for the Crucible before and Sam Baird is a talented, if young player.
I do expect this section to be settled by another Davis v Gunnell tie and in any other tournament I would probably find myself backing Adrian. At the World Championship however I would expect Davis to have put in that little bit of extra practice and with the time to recover from a slow start as he did last year, I can see him just edging it.
The final route through in this quarter is headed by former Masters finalist Fergal O’Brien, a man who after a poor run of results at the start of the season has won his last two qualifying matches to keep alive his chances of retaining a top 48 spot at the end of the season.
So who is standing in the way of him returning to the Crucible for the first time since 2007? The next highest ranked player is another veteran, 1993 semi-finalist Alan McManus who similarly has started to record some wins after three early ranking event losses. The section is completed by Paul Davies, Lee Spick and Joe Jogia, who of the three has probably had the best season, twice reaching the third qualifying round of tournaments.
My expectation here is that O’Brien and McManus will face off for a place at the Crucible and that it will be Fergal who comes through to secure a much-needed win. While his results early in the season were poor, his form on paper at least appeared to be strong and over 19 frames I think that he is the strongest player in this section…
Stay tuned for part two of my preview which will follow during the next couple of days…