The opening European Tour event of the 2019 PDC season takes place this weekend and our darts expert Chris Hammer previews the action.
Recommended Bets: European Darts Open
1pt Rob Cross to win the European Darts Open at 8/1
0.5pt e.w. Dimitri van den Bergh at 50/1 (1/3 1,2)
0.5pt e.w. Jeffrey de Zwaan at 66/1 (1/3 1,2)
The increasingly popular European Tour gets under way this weekend in the confines of Leverkusen's Ostermann Arena as the darting hotbed of Germany hosts a quick succession of events to further crank up the enthusiasm levels for the sport here.
Eight of the nine permanent Premier League line-up that featured in Berlin on Thursday night enter the competition at the last 32 stage on Saturday, with qualifier Raymond van Barneveld already eliminated by Steve Beaton during Friday night's first round, and they are joined by the likes of Adrian Lewis, Simon Whitlock and Dave Chisnall before the tour heads off to Hildesheim next weekend.
Michael van Gerwen is the defending champion after coming from 5-1 down to defeat Peter Wright 8-7 in a thrilling final exactly 12 months ago before going on to win a further seven European Tour titles out of a possible 13 but can we expect him to be quite so dominant in 2019?
The very early signs this season suggested yes, with the world champion easily defending his Masters title before making a fast start to his Premier League season and also winning the opening Players Championship event of 2019 before Jonny Clayton eventually ended his 22-match winning run 24 hours later.
MVG picked up another title the following weekend - with the help of a maximum-less nine-dart finish - but since then he crashed out of the UK Open at his first hurdle to Mervyn King and lost two Premier League matches as well as being held to the most dramatic of 6-6 draws with John Henderson in Aberdeen.
Thursday's most recent defeat came against Daryl Gurney - the man who beat him in the climax of the Players Championship Finals late last year - and he averaged 'just' 96, which was the fourth time he'd posted a mark under 100 in the Premier League season so far.
That's quite a drop off considering he'd averaged 100+ in every game bar one throughout the whole 2017 and 2018 Premier League campaigns combined!
He managed to win with a 96 average against Gerwyn Price seven days earlier but it was a pretty poor match by both players standards' despite MVG's late rally and he wasn't put under any pressure.
In short, he's vulnerable at such short prices, especially in such short format tournaments like this when it's first to six legs until the semi-finals. Given the standard of players these days - even outside the top 16 - they can all give him a good game, and we've already seen Nathan Aspinall give him a 6-1 hiding on the Pro Tour this season before his success at the UK Open.
There will be a time in the not too distant future - perhaps even this weekend - when he'll play ridiculously good darts again, win a title and make all his doubters look silly, but on current evidence I'm not expecting it just yet.
MVG has a really tough half of the draw and opens up against King before facing the winner of in-form Jermaine Wattimena and three-time Lakeside king Glen Durrant, who has already won a PDC title following his success at Qualifying School.
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Top half of the draw
- Michael van Gerwen (1) v Mervyn King
- Jermaine Wattimena (16) v Glen Durrant
- Michael Smith (8) v Krzysztof Ratajski
- Gerwyn Price (9) v Scott Taylor
- Mensur Suljovic (5) v Matthew Dennant
- Joe Cullen (12) v Vincent van der Voort
- James Wade (4) v Wesley Plaisier
- Dave Chisnall (13) v Ted Evetts
Many will expect Durrant to come through that game but the Dutch Machine Gun has been really impressive since giving Gary Anderson that almighty scare at the World Championship, reaching the final of the first Players Championship of the season, losing to MVG, and two further quarter-finals, so don't be surprised if he goes far.
If he avoids early drama, then it's likely to be one of Michael Smith, Krzysztof Ratajski or Gerwyn Price in the quarters before a potential showdown with a resurgent Dave Chisnall, who has won two Players Championship events already this season, James Wade, Mensur Suljovic or Joe Cullen.
You could make a case for all of them at tempting odds - but given the short format and the stacked equally-matched standard of opposition, it's perhaps a safer option to look at the bottom half.
Rob Cross is looking like the 'form horse' despite not having won a title since last August and surely if he keeps up his current standard of play then a maiden European Tour triumph is on the cards this weekend.
Voltage has actually only reached two European finals, losing both to van Gerwen during his dream 2017 debut season and only managed to go as far as the semi-finals once last year.
But 2018, as we all appreciate, was a tough learning curve for Cross and now he's beginning to look much more like the force we expected to him to become.
An impressive run to the UK Open final - where admittedly he had nothing left to give against Aspinall after a draining weekend - has been backed up by consistent performances in the Premier League, managing 100+ averages in five of his seven matches and he now finds himself top of the table.
On the Pro Tour his best run is a semi-final appearance but he looked in great shape last Saturday in the seventh Players Championship event of the campaign until eventual champion Chisnall stopped him in his tracks with a sensational 108 average.
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Bottom half of the draw
- Ian White (2) v Justin Pipe
- Darren Webster (15) v Pavel Jirkal
- Rob Cross (7) v Steve Beaton
- Jonny Clayton (10) v Adam Hunt
- Adrian Lewis (6) v Dimitri Van den Bergh
- Daryl Gurney (11) v Jeffrey de Zwaan
- Peter Wright (3) v Kim Huybrechts
- Simon Whitlock (14) v Ross Smith
He'll need to get past Beaton first and also in his quarter are second seed Ian White, who performed so consistently well on this tour last year and also bagged a maiden title, Darren Webster and Johnny Clayton. None of them will give him an easy game of course, but I'd expect him to come through and reach the semi-finals.
Peter Wright could well be waiting but I think his price of 9/1 is possibly too short given he's not yet back at the standard which made him so feared on the European Tour over the past couple of seasons, especially in 2017 when he won five titles to take his tally to six.
All his 13 finals have come in German venues - including the last two here in Leverkusen - and although he didn't win either of his two in 2018, they were both against MVG.
Snakebite is bubbling along nicely if not spectacularly this season but it's perhaps worth taking a flier on one of the two dangerous outsiders in this quarter - namely Dimitri van den Bergh (50/1) and Jeffrey de Zwaan (66/1).
These two bright talents of the game, who comfortably came through their first-round matches on Friday night, will be regarded marginal outsiders against Adrian Lewis and Daryl Gurney respectively.
Jackpot won his 25th PDC title - and first since 2017 - last Sunday so he'll be feeling good about himself while Gurney, who was runner-up in Saturday's event, is also on a high after victory over van Gerwen in the Premier League.
Nevertheless, it'd hardly be a shock if either seed crashed out and I'm particularly keen on van den Bergh's chances.
The confident two-time world youth champion beat Cross en route to reaching the final of the opening Players Championship event this season, before losing to Durrant, while he'll still be kicking himself about how his UK Open campaign ended against Beaton in the last 16 after looking so impressive in the earlier rounds.
Dancing Dimitri clearly revels in the stage environment and it wasn't that long ago when millions witnessed his true star potential when hitting a nine-dart finish at the 2018 Grand Slam of Darts, where he reached the quarter-finals.
The European Tour is the ideal stage for Van den Bergh to break his PDC title duck in the senior ranks and he'll certainly be sensing this as a great opportunity to reach at least the semis.
There's no secret surrounding De Zwaan's talents and he'll have no qualms facing Gurney having thrashed him 6-1 during one of his decent outings on the Pro Tour this season.
Hopefully he comes through that and meets van den Bergh, guaranteeing a quarter-finalist who'd I'd be fancying the chances of against Wright or the other likely option in Simon Whitlock.
I wouldn't be backing de Zwaan if he'd fallen into the top half of the draw as his form hasn't been electric but this is a great chance for the 2018 World Matchplay semi-finalist to remind us of his potential and you never know, he could be the one who sets up a repeat of that epic World Championship encounter he had with Cross.