Right, thanks to the wonderful folks at WST who have given us less than 48 hours from the draw until the start of the World Championships, I’m not going to go on a long preamble. You know how this works by now. Quick preview of the matches, I’ll give each qualifier’s World Ranking (as of the end of the Qualifiers), along with the Head2Head of them, provided by the fine folks at CueTracker. Right, allons-y!
Match 1: (1) Ronnie O’Sullivan vs. (42) Mark Joyce
H2H: Ronnie 2-1 Joyce
So we begin with the defending six-time champion of the world. Calm, composed, consistent, all things that Ronnie usually is. But this season’s been a little strange for him, as there’s been a distinct lack of winning anything. He’s reached five finals, a further semi-final, and two Quarter-Finals. But this is the Crucible, in front of fans, and Ronnie will be pumped for Number 7.
The words “Baptism of Fire” come to mind for Mark Joyce. The 37 year old from Walsall has finally made it to the hallowedest of grounds after 15 years of trying, and two previous visits to the final qualifying round. Forever an under-appreciated player, Joyce is almost a professional journeyman in the sense that he’s consistently been on tour since 2006, but has never really made headlines, waiting until 2019’s Riga Masters to reach his first ranking final.
Don’t be fooled though. He’s got one hell of a backbone, he’s become increasingly good at making big breaks in recent seasons, and has absolute acres of experience. He did very well on Judgement Day to hold off Igor Figueredo, and if he gets going he will be a huge threat. I do think Ronnie will win comfortably in the end, but I think the man from Walsall will cause him some issues and the Rocket will have to play well.
Prediction: Ronnie O’Sullivan 10 – 5 Mark Joyce
Match 2: (16) Anthony McGill vs. (32) Ricky Walden
H2H: McGill 1-0 Walden
How weird is it that these two have been professional at the same time for 11 years, and yet they’ve only ever faced each other once? McGill has had a decent season if not spectacular (then again after that semi-final, he might be thankful for that!), and has peaked with three Last 16s. He’s been pretty consistent, and on his day is capable of slamming in ton after ton, as he has done at times this season. He’s also extremely gritty, to the point where I’m pretty sure they had to scrape him off of the table last summer.
Meanwhile, how good is it to see Ricky Walden back in good health? After all the issues he’s had with his back in the past few years, to hear him talk about being largely pain free is great. Because he is a mighty fine player. Like McGill he’s gritty, but he’s better to watch in the balls I feel. The only way I can think of describing his style is like a graceful ballet dancer who lives a double life as a street fighter (don’t laugh). He’s got this way of floating the cue ball around the table, but he’s a scrapper when he has to be.
This will be a mighty fine match. Both players go for their shots, but they don’t take reckless risks either. They aren’t defensive players, but they will scrap through a 50 minute frame no issue. It’s likely to be close throughout, and both will get chance to show exactly what they’re made of. As for the winner? Ricky looked in really good touch against Ryan Day on Judgement Day, and I think that bit of match practice will prove the difference.
Prediction: Anthony McGill 8 – 10 Ricky Walden
Match 3: (9) Ding Junhui vs. (17) Stuart Bingham
H2H: Ding 6 – 10 Bingham
This is the tie which will set tongues wagging. Ding has been more consistent this season than his past couple of campaigns, but he’s still not been brilliant. It honestly feels like he’s been going through the motions since he won the UK Championship last season, and while he has reached four Quarter-Finals this season in Ranking events, he’s won only a single match since the end of January. But on his day, Ding is still more than good enough to win the competition.
On the other hand, Stuart Bingham has won this, six years ago. His drop out of the Top 16 wasn’t a dramatic fall though; rather, it was years of rather indifferent form and disappointing results. He’s been slightly better in the second half of this season, reaching a couple of Quarter-Finals himself, but ultimately failing to win the Pro Series sealed his fate of having to qualify. He’s become a bit of a 147 addict, having made four in just over two years and two in less than two months earlier in the season. As his nickname of Ball-Run suggests, he’s also subject to some excellent luck sometimes.
This is a match which could very much grace the one table setup. Two players who are highly experienced, two players who have been right at the top-end of the game for many a year. If Ding brings his game, he could easily take this one, and comfortably. But on current form, he isn’t the same force he was, and I think Bingham has a point to prove. I’ve got the qualifier winning here, and comfortably.
Prediction: Ding Junhui 6 – 10 Stuart Bingham
Match 4: (9) Stephen Maguire vs. (62) Jamie Jones
H2H: Stephen Maguire 0 – 1 Jamie Jones
Ah the age old battle between potential and consistency. Stephen Maguire is… how do I put this… unpredictable. On his day, he can slaughter almost anybody in the game with a relentless barrage of potting and the occasional good safety. There’s an old analogy I think of in snooker – when your game is good, you’re good. Stephen is sort of the opposite. With him, when he’s feeling good, his game is good. When he’s not feeling good though, then literally anything could happen.
Now here’s a little bit of an oddity. Jamie Jones is the lowest ranked player in the draw at 62. The oddity is that Jamie is such a good player. Not the most prolific century maker, but he has a certain knack for just keeping breaks going long enough to take frames. He’s also very adept at taking the scrappier frames, picking off 30 or 40 breaks here and there, keeping it tight. He passed the test of the qualifiers with flying colours, beating off David Lilley, Michael Holt, and Li Hang.
The reason I called this potential vs. consistency is because Maguire “should” beat Jones. If Mags is playing near his peak, then he will win. But that’s a big “if”. Because he has a top gear which he almost never finds. Jamie has experience, but he’s playing with freedom, and he has a real wind behind him. I think that will blow him towards a shock.
Prediction: Stephen Maguire 7 – 10 Jamie Jones
Match 5: (5) John Higgins vs. (57) Tian Pengfei
H2H: John Higgins 3 – 0 Tian Pengfei
John Higgins went into last year as a three-time consecutive finalist, but after beating Matthew Stevens (in a match he probably should have lost), he lost in an all-time great match to Kurt Maflin, in a massive shock. So what can he do this year? Well, he’s played absolutely superbly at times, and his win at the Players Championship saw an absolutely rampant performance, including a 6-0 victory against Mark Selby where he conceded seven points in six frames, and overall has had a highly successful season, winning his 31st ranking title at the Players Championship.
Between that and the head to head, Tian has his work cut out. The man from Dalian has had a pretty awful season (not helped by months of self-isolation), but very much turned up at the Qualifiers, a solid win against Sunny Akani followed by surviving a comeback from Graeme Dott (winning 10-7 having lead 8-1), making three tons in the process. A very confident player, Tian has reached four Ranking Quarter-Finals, losing all of them, and is difficult to get under the skin of.
No matter how confident he is though, he’s still got it all to do. Higgins is a major contender this year, and he’s going to take some stopping. There are plenty of players who could stop him if he doesn’t reach top form, but if he’s at the peak of his game, there’s only a few who will be able to stand up to him. And for all his talent, Tian Pengfei is not one of them.
Prediction: John Higgins 10 – 3 Tian Pengfei
Match 6: (12) Mark Williams vs. (50) Sam Craigie
H2H: Mark Williams 2 – 0 Sam Craigie
From a four time World Champion to a three-time World Champion. Mark Williams has had three Semi-Finals this season, including a tournament win. Which would be even more impressive if that didn’t include the Pro Series (best of three frames) and the Shootout (which I am NOT getting into here however much you’d love it). Other than that he’s actually had a good season, especially for someone who doesn’t really care. One of the best one-ball potters in the game, Willo reached the Last 8 last year and you have to imagine he wouldn’t mind a fourth World title.
Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big fan of Sam Craigie, who I might add, I predicted to get through the qualifiers. From 3-0 and 5-2 down against Zhao Xintong, Craigie fought like a lion and eventually managed to hold himself together for an 89 in Frame 19 to take the match. Sam is a funny player who when he turns up, can beat anybody. He’s a little bit of a short-form specialist (3rd in the Pro Series this year), but he proved at the Qualifiers that he can really hold his own, and he has absolute buckets full of bottle.
This will be a great match most likely. Sam will not be intimidated by the spotlight, and he will not be overawed by playing at the Crucible, and Mark will respect the threat that he provides. Should Willo not bring his A game, Sam has a real shot at causing the upset, because once he gets going, he is such an attacking player that he’ll basically take on everything, and when they’re going in, they’re all going in. Ultimately though I do think Williams will hold out and claim a nervy victory. Make no mistake though – Serious Sam is a serious talent.
Prediction: Mark Williams 10 – 7 Sam Craigie
Match 7: (13) Mark Allen vs. (53) Lyu Haotian
H2H: Mark Allen 2 – 0 Lyu Haotian
Some matches just scream “Instant Classic!”. This match is not one of them. Mark Allen, such a good player. But his season’s really not been that good, with one Quarter-Final, and he has a pretty rancid record in Sheffield, losing the past two years in Round 1 to Zhou Yuelong and Jamie Clarke respectively. The problem with Allen is against top class opponents, he never seems to have a Plan B. He’s brilliant when they’re going in. But if they’re not going in, he just isn’t the same animal. To me he almost looks disinterested at times. And it’s a shame, because when he won the Masters, we all thought that he’d finally come of age. Now he’s 35 and hasn’t won an event in around 29 months (nearly 2.5 years).
And looking to make it three first-hurdle exits in a row for the Pistol is Lyu Haotian. Still only 23, Haotian first turned pro back in 2013, but had actually reached his first Ranking Quarter-Final the previous year, aged only 14. Since then I don’t think his career has quite taken off the way he was hoping or that people were expecting. From my experience of his matches, he’s a very silky player who just seems to slip around the table, almost like a ghost. He just quietly gets on with his business and doesn’t make a fuss. It’s actually a surprise to me that it’s only his second visit to the Crucible.
Ultimately, Mark Allen is vulnurable when he isn’t making the big breaks and the difficult shots just aren’t on target. However, he has developed a real backbone, and while Lyu is doubtless an excellent player, I just don’t think he’s a heavy enough scorer to really trouble the man from Antrim. I wouldn’t anticipate this one living long in the memory, but hey, I’ve been wrong before.
Prediction: Mark Allen 10 – 6 Lyu Haotian
Match 8: (4) Mark Selby vs. (21) Kurt Maflin
H2H: Mark Selby 2 – 1 Kurt Maflin
Why do my favourites have to play each other? It’s not fair! Fine, since I like both of them I’m at least guaranteed to be impartial. This is interesting because they played each other at this stage 6 years ago. In fact it was the last time they faced each other, with Selby winning that one on a decider, having somehow thrown away a four frame lead twice in the match.
The question here is this: is the old Mark Selby back? My answer is that he never left. There’s this misconception that the old Mark Selby was a player who only ever played to about 20% of his potential but won by keeping his opponent behind a baulk colour all the time. In reality, that was just one weapon. He won because he had better safety than everyone else, he took his chances, and he mastered the art of winning frames from near impossible situations. During his lean period, it’s not that he lost the ability to do these things, it’s that he kept tinkering with his technique, and that was getting in the way of playing his natural game.
But he’s very much been back this season. Of the 14 ranking events, he’s reached the Quarter-Finals of 9 (3 QF defeats, 3 SF defeats, a Final defeat, and two titles). And if we’re being honest, it’s arguably an even better Selby we’ve seen. Because this time around, Selby is consistently scoring better. He’s turning more chances into frame-winning contributions, and he’s made 51 Centuries this season, the 5th best season of his 22 season career, and the 4th most of anybody this season.
He could have asked for an easier match in Round 1 though. Kurt Maflin is a real handful, and he looked great in the qualifiers, making three tons against Jak Jones (including two in the first two frames), and then crushing Robert Milkins 10-4. Maflin reached the Top 8 last year and he didn’t do that by accident. He did that by playing well and sticking to his natural game. And don’t get me started the Viking Split.
This is a match that you can imagine I’m very much looking forward to, and I honestly believe the winner will be a serious contender to take home the title. Selby is rightfully the favourite, and will take a lot of beating after his tremendous season. But, I just have a slight hunch…
Prediction: Mark Selby 8 – 10 Kurt Maflin
Match 9: (3) Neil Robertson vs. (26) Liang Wenbo
H2H: Neil Robertson 7 – 3 Liang Wenbo
If you pay attention to the head to head this should be an open and shut case. Neil Robertson has won two events this season, including the UK Championship, where he beat Judd Trump in an exhausting match. He’s also taken his career century count up to 777 (as of writing), fourth of all time. His win at the Tour Championship was also his 20th Ranking title.
So Liang has a tough task ahead of him. The Firecracker is a real battler, and has a massive heart. He’ll never give up on himself, but he’s struggled for consistency. He’s had a mediocre season, with five Last 32s (including three of the Home Nations events) being his highlight. To be honest, highlights are hard to come by for him in recent times, and at 34, he feels as far away from the higher echelons of the game as he has in a long time.
Simply put, Snooker’s quality is moving on from where Liang’s inconsistencies can be outweighed by a quick burst, or an opponent throwing in some loose ones. It feels like he’s stayed still and is slowly being overtaken by the rest of the tour. His position in the Top 32 is as much because of people losing money from their rankings as they are his own performances. Both the previous BO19 matches between these two have finished 10-5, but with how Neil’s played this season, I don’t think this will be nearly as competitive.
Prediction: Neil Robertson 10 – 3 Liang Wenbo
Match 10: (14) Jack Lisowski vs. (23) Ali Carter
H2H: Lisowski 1 – 2 Carter
Right, who at Betfred has a grudge against Lisowski? The past three years he’s been seeded at the Crucible, and who’s he drawn? Ali Carter, Anthony McGill, and now Ali Carter again. I’ve never known a seed have such atrocious luck of the draw. Anyway, I would say Jack’s had a great season, but at this point I don’t think it will be a “great” season until he actually wins something. Which might happen if he ever stops facing Judd in the final. They’ve faced off in all 3 of Lisowski’s finals this season, and Jack’s lost them all, because somehow, he’s incapable of playing well on big occasions against Judd.
Now Ali Carter is a player who looks like a totally different animal this season. After a somewhat disappointing effort last season (hell, his best effort last season was in an event he didn’t initially qualify for), he’s been fantastic this season, reaching a 10th ranking final and knocking in tons for fun at times. He had to battle in the Qualifiers, but after seeing off Pang Junxu, he cruised past the talented Alex Ursenbacher.
You know what you’re going to get here. There’s going to be big breaks, there’s going to be a lot of tension, and you know there’s going to be gritty match play. This match finished 10-6 two years ago, but I think Jack believes more now that he belongs at the top table. A win here would be a great statement to put out – Jack is no longer the soft underbelly of the 16.
Prediction: Jack Lisowski 10 – 8 Ali Carter
Match 11: (11) Barry Hawkins vs. (29) Matt Selt
H2H: Hawkins 5 – 4 Selt
Match 11 with Seed 11, and a second match which went to a decider in Round 1 in 2015 when the seeded player lead 8-4. No, you’re not skipping back to Selby vs. Maflin, but the similarities are amazing. Barry has had a major revival this season, having been out of the Top 16 provisionally for about half the season. Three semi-finals are a much better return for someone who has been out of form for some time. He’s highly consistent, and has an excellent record in Round 1.
But he’s got a stiff challenge here in an in-form Matt Selt. Selt reached the Semis in the Gibraltar Open last month, and looked mighty fine against Scott Donaldson to qualify. An absolutely explosive player when he gets going, Selt by his own admission has massively underachieved, but he feels like he’s finally found his groove and is on the verge of a massive breakthrough in the game. He’s won one ranking title and it could turn into more in the future.
This is hard to call, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we had another decider. Ultimately I’m going with the form book, and the form book tells me that Barry Hawkins will not have this his own way. But with Selt, one never knows.
Prediction: Barry Hawkins 9 – 10 Matt Selt
Match 12: (6) Kyren Wilson vs. (33) Gary Wilson
H2H: Kyren 6 – 3 Gary
No, I’m not making the obvious joke. Kyren was runner-up last year, but after his spectacular semi-final, he put in a damp squib of a showing against Ronnie in what should have been the biggest match of his career. Including the Champion of Champions, Championship League and the Masters, Kyren has been in a quite frankly absurd 11 Quarter-Finals this season. Which would be better but for the fact he’s won 3. In fact his only titles are the two variants of the championship league.
Gary Wilson was good in qualifying, but the semi-finalist from two years ago has had a dreadful season, only progressing beyond the Last 64 on one occasion before this, and in fact went around four months without winning a single match. The Tyneside Terror is undoubtedly a great player, but depression and other factors have caused his game to drop off dramatically.
This isn’t going to be an easy match for Kyren, but I’m struggling to see how Gary will really cause him huge problems. The man from the Tyne needs to get his game together in the close season, because that semi-final feels so much longer than two years ago now.
Prediction: Kyren Wilson 10 – 5 Gary Wilson
Match 13: (7) Shaun Murphy vs. (49) Mark Davis
H2H: Murphy 10 – 7 Davis
Shaun has had a pretty rough season. Being based in Ireland hasn’t helped as it means he’s gone months without seeing his family at times due to travel restrictions, but it can’t be debated. Shaun seems to believe he’s played well and has just come up against people playing out of their skin, but I’m unconvinced personally. He has a semi-final to his name though, which is more than a lot of players can say.
Mark Davis on the other hand, has had an even worse season, as this is his first appearance at the Last 32 stage of an event since October. And to make it this far he needed an incredible comeback from 7-2 down against Jamie Clarke. Davis is an incredibly solid player, but it feels like he’s faded so much since his English Open final in 2018.
Surely Smurph can’t mess this one up. Davis has reached this stage 11 times previous, but he’s only won 3 of those matches, and none since 2013. Murphy if playing well is always a massive threat, and I for one hope that he does go far. He’s a fantastic representative of the sport.
Prediction: Shaun Murphy 10 – 4 Mark Davis
Match 14: (10) Yan Bingtao vs. (24) Martin Gould
H2H: Yan 3 – 1 Gould
Yan is the reigning Masters Champion, and it feels like he’s become the big Chinese hope for a first world champion. Which is a little bit unfair really. Yes he’s good, but I don’t think people factor in the sheer gruelling nature of this tournament. People expect everything immediately, forgetting he’s barely 21 still. Other than that it’s been a rather flat season for him, he’s not beyond the Quarter-Finals of an event, and his last one of those in a Ranking event was November. He’s a massive talent, but pressure can crush talents if it gets too heavy.
Martin Gould on the other hand is just totally revitalised. The Pinner Potter came within a whisker of a 2nd Ranking title at the European Masters at the start of the season, but lost a decider to Mark Selby in an absorbing match. Since then it’s been a bit up and down for him, he’s struggled to chain good results together. The important thing for Gould though is he’s feeling better about his game, and seems to have found his scoring boots again.
I honestly fancy Martin for this match. Yan is REALLY good, but he’s still young, and I think he’s still a little bit negative with his shot selection on occasion. Martin will put him under pressure, and won’t panic when behind, and I think the Gouldfather has this one.
Prediction: Yan Bingtao 8 – 10 Martin Gould
Match 15: (15) Dave Gilbert vs. (59) Chris Wakelin
H2H: Gilbert 1 – 0 Wakelin
Dave Gilbert really needs a good run here, because provisionally, he is a long way outside the Top 16. He’s reached a Quarter-Final this season, but for a player who had been threatening to break the door down to win an event, he’s now not reached a final in 18 months. It’s a shame for such a talented player as well, and Gilberto seems like such a lovely guy.
Another lovely seeming guy is Chris Wakelin. He’s back after almost taking out the Juddinator in 2018, and was superb in seeing off Matthew Stevens and then Xiao Guodong in a gripping encounter to qualify. He’s such a smooth player, and has hit a little bit of form, form which has seen him keep his place on tour. He’s happy with his game again, and he will surely be ranked much higher than 59 in twelve months’ time.
I can honestly see Wakelin taking this one. Gilbert has been out of sorts for a long while now, and he will have all the pressure on him now Wakelin’s tour card is very much safe. It’s the man from Nuneaton I’m backing here, while the farmer gets stuck in the mud (I’m sorry, it’s the best farming pun I had).
Prediction: Dave Gilbert 7 – 10 Chris Wakelin
Match 16: (2) Judd Trump vs. (43) Liam Highfield
Snooker’s galactic overlord, fashion icon, victim of a conspiracy, a penniless pauper, is there anything Judd Trump doesn’t believe he is? I’ll get to talking about Judd’s… comments some other time, but it’s no secret that this blog isn’t a huge fan of the Ace (just ask the blog’s Twitter bio, @M18Snooker). Judd’s looking for the scarlet pimpernel of Snooker here, title #6 of the season. Trump has this habit of playing badly right until he needs to play well, and then suddenly playing like a god again.
So what chance does Liam Highfield have? Well, he is a very talented player, he’s a real bulldog, and he won’t be daunted by facing Trump. In fact, he probably loves the draw. His win over Zhou Yuelong was terrific, and it netted him a second visit to the theatre. Last 32 his best this season, but he has reached a Ranking event Quarter-Final before.
I think Trump will win here, but it won’t be easy, because Highfield will scrap for every point. He’s used to scrapping, and I don’t think Judd will be prepared for the fight he’s going to face. And not just because he believes everyone should bow at his feet. Do I think he’ll win? Yes. Do I think he’ll win a second world title? Not this year.
Prediction: Judd Trump 10 – 6 Liam Highfield
CHAMPION PREDICTION: Neil Robertson