The PDC World Darts Championship is almost upon us and our expert Chris Hammer previews the action with his tournament preview and best bets.
Christmas, as ever, comes just over a week early for all darts fans - but this year there's even more reason for festive cheer.
The 26th staging of PDC's showpiece event will see 96 players involved - 24 more than usual, including female stars Lisa Ashton and Anastasia Dobromyslova - as well six more sessions of play to accommodate all those extra games. That'll not only give us more hours in front of the TV but also a welcome additional excuse to hide away from the in-laws.
However, as far as the leading contenders are concerned, the equation has not changed. They all head to Alexandra Palace six wins and two-and-a-half mentally and physically draining weeks away from becoming world champion.
The two biggest guns of all - Michael van Gerwen and Gary Anderson - are bidding to become just the second player in history, behind the legendary Phil Taylor, to lift the trophy three times but despite winning the majority of major titles between them in 2018, the gap to the rest is evidently closing.
Indeed, it's been a truly fascinating season with the likes of James Wade (twice), Daryl Gurney and Gerwyn Price claiming four of the big TV prizes while there have also been 21 different winners of the 57 PDC individual events in 2018, which is quite a lot when you consider MVG won 18 in what has widely been labelled a below-par season by his standards!
In short I think we're going to be in for plenty of shocks at Alexandra Palace and some big-priced names potentially getting as far as the semi-finals, like Jamie Lewis last year and, to a lesser degree, eventual champion Rob Cross. The challenge is finding them.
As usual for the big TV events, I'll go through the draw quarter-by-quarter before delivering my outright verdict and recommended bets.
Quarter One (seedings in brackets)
All signs point to MVG, but if you want an outsider, Krzystof Ratajski at 20/1
- (1) Michael van Gerwen v Alan Tabern/Raymond Smith
- (32) Max Hopp v Royden Lam/Danny Noppert
- (16) Adrian Lewis v Simon Stevenson/Ted Evetts
- (17) Raymond van Barneveld v Matthew Edgar/Darius Labanauskas
- (8) Simon Whitlock v Ryan Joyce/Anastasia Dobromyslova
- (25) Alan Norris v Steve Lennon/James Bailey
- (9) James Wade v Krzystof Ratajski/Seigo Asada
- (24) Jelle Klaasen v Keegan Brown/Karel Sedlacek
- Click here for Sky Bet's first quarter odds
- CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL TOURNAMENT DRAW & SCHEDULE
OK, so van Gerwen isn't quite the force he was this time 12 months ago.
But despite 'failing' to win the UK Open Finals, World Matchplay, Champions League of Darts, Grand Slam of Darts, European Championship, World Series of Darts Finals and the Players Championship Finals he's still managed to collect 18 individual titles in 2018 including the Masters, Premier League and World Grand Prix.
The last of those disappointments at the Players Championship Finals came on a day where he'd beaten Gary Anderson in the semi-finals before being denied by a heroic performance from Daryl Gurney - so it's hardly as though he's miles off his best. A bit of rest and the focus of a World Championship might be all he needs.
If MVG storms to his third world title then his pre-tournament odds of 6/4 with Sky Bet will look a steal in hindsight but the draw does put him on a collision course with the Flying Scotsman in the semi-finals.
Before then I don't really think he's got much to worry about. He'll have too much for either Max Hopp or Danny Noppert over seven sets in round three although Adrian Lewis or Raymond van Barneveld would have a fighting chance in the next.
Barney is playing in his penultimate world championship before retirement although he'll probably approach it as his last, especially in the knowledge that an early KO will see his ranking plummet and therefore potentially making his swanswong season a struggle to qualify for the big events - including here in 12 months' time.
Despite a struggle for form, which prompted his decision to announce his retirement plan last month, the Dutch legend did defeat MVG 10-8 at the recent World Series of Darts Finals and in this season's Premier League while he'll also feed off the memory of that epic third-round triumph over his Dutch rival here three years ago. That's if he gets past Jackpot, of course.
I'm finding that potential third-round clash impossible to call because Lewis looks like he's heading in the right direction after a difficult couple of years - not least 12 months ago when he lost to Kevin Munch in the opening round.
Either way, I'd expect MVG to be too strong and then we're into the best-of-nine set quarter-finals, where beating him will require a herculean effort.
James Wade, who ended a near five-year wait for a TV title by winning the European Championship and World Series back-to-back recently, is the first name that jumps out but as great as it was to see The Machine lifting trophies again, were his performances of the standard needed to stop van Gerwen in this format?
If you do think MVG might come unstuck against Barney or Lewis, then why not look at Krzystof Ratajski to win the quarter at 33/1?
The Polish Eagle won back-to-back Players Championship titles a couple of months ago before impressing on the televised stage at both the Grand Slam of Darts and Players Championship Finals, where he memorably pulled off an incredible comeback to defeat Gerwyn Price - with the celebrations to match.
He blew his chance of doing real damage in the latter with an unexpectedly big 10-4 defeat to Noppert but that doesn't stop him being a dangerous opponent, one who is enjoying an upward curve in his career.
Hard to look past Gary Anderson but Daryl Gurney will be a threat
- (5) Daryl Gurney v Ross Smith/Paul Lim
- (28) Jamie Lewis v Martin Schindler/Cody Harris
- (12) Dave Chisnall v Josh Payne/Jeff Smith
- (21) Kim Huybrechts v Robert Thornton/Daniel Larsson
- (4) Gary Anderson v Paul Nicholson/Kevin Burness
- (29) Jermaine Wattimena v Michael Barnard/Jose De Sousa
- (13) Darren Webster v Vincent van der Voort/Lourence Ilagen
- (20) Steve Beaton v Chris Dobey/Boris Koltsov
- Click here for Sky Bet's second quarter odds
Gary Anderson is unsurprisingly the hot favourite to come through this quarter and potentially set up a mouthwatering last-four showdown with MVG.
The Flying Scotsman has enjoyed a superb 2018 which has seen him win four televised titles including the UK Open, World Matchplay (where he also hit a nine-darter along the way) and Champions League of Darts crowns all for the first time in his career.
However, his last two semi-final meetings against the world number one effectively scuppered his chances at the Grand Slam of Darts and the Players Championship Finals.
Although he emerged triumphant 16-12 in the first of those in Wolverhampton, it looked as though it took a lot out of him and went on to lose a battling (almost literally!) final against a fired up Gerwyn Price. And in the second semi-final, he was beaten 11-9.
Since then he's been enjoying a well earned rest and lots of fishing, but I just wonder if he'll have the mental and physical stamina to go all the way here for the first time since the 2016 final against Adrian Lewis.
As far as this quarter goes, I very much doubt he'll go out early - although what a story it would be if Paul Nicholson can dump him out in round two - and his first real test should be against either man of the moment Gurney or Dave Chisnall in the last eight, although the latter will have to be consistently at the top of his game to stand a chance - and these days he's just not doing that.
Gurney showed real fighting spirit in an incredible final against MVG to win his second TV title at the Players Championship Finals last month and it's no real surprise to see his odds tumble down to 25/1 for world glory.
The manner of his triumph against a player he hadn't beaten in 13 previous meetings since 2016 - and never before on television - will give him belief against absolutely anyone and he's a real danger.
It's also important to mention that his triumph in Minehead must surely seal his Premier League spot for 2019 so he doesn't have that additional burden on his mind.
Rob Cross at the price but the in-form star is Michael Smith
- (2) Rob Cross v Jeffrey de Zwaan/Nitin Kumar
- (31) Cristo Reyes v Ricky Evans/Rowby-John Rodriguez
- (15) Jonny Clayton v Dimitri van den Bergh/Chuck Puleo
- (18) Stephen Bunting v Luke Humphries/Adam Hunt
- (7) Mensur Suljovic v Ryan Searle/Stephen Burton
- (26) James Wilson v William O'Connor/Yordi Meeuwisse
- (10) Michael Smith v Ron Meulenkamp/Diogo Portela
- (23) John Henderson v Gabriel Clemens/Aden Kirk
- Click here for Sky Bet's third quarter odds
I backed Rob Cross to win the world title last year at 16/1 (still dining out on that by the way!) but after 12 months of experience in the big-time, he's out to 22/1 to defend his crown.
It was a remarkable debut season for Voltage in 2017, which culminated in a trouncing of Phil Taylor in the Power's final competitive match, but he hasn't kicked on like many were expecting.
However is it really as 'bad' a season as people are making out?
The first half of the year was a completely new experience for him due to his maiden involvement in the hectic Premier League, in which he still impressively reached Finals Night despite a nightmare start to the campaign.
Sure, he's not reached any finals or looked particularly explosive in terms of his scoring in the biggest televised events but he has won two titles - a Players Championship tournament in May and the Brisbane Darts Masters, beating MVG in the final.
Although it's two less overall as he'd won this time last year (but none of those were televised), the Rob Cross of 2018 has fantastic memories of Alexandra Palace and a hell of a lot more experience of big-time darts.
I spoke to him at an exhibition event at Elland Road last week and he was in really good spirits after a much needed rest with his family, insisting that he can retain his title.
He wasn't fazed about the 'tough' draw either, saying "it's no different from last year", and he's not wrong. He came through compelling showdowns with Dimitri van den Bergh and Michael Smith prior to his successes over MVG and Phil Taylor and he could well meet the former duo again.
His outright odds have drifted out partly because of the dangerous Jeffrey de Zwaan, who knocked MVG out of both the UK Open and World Matchplay this year, but the Dutchman hasn't really done much since his semi-final run in Blackpool and crucially will have already played a minimum of three sets on opening night prior to facing Cross.
Nitin Kumar will pose de Zwaan few problems but it's still exerting physical and mental energy he could have done with saving.
Van den Bergh was also at the aforementioned exhibition event showing off a fancy skill in the practice room and while he won't be performing it on the oche at Ally Pally, he's well capable of producing more important show-stopping feats.
Van den Bergh secured his maiden televised nine-dart finish at the Grand Slam of Darts, while he also made history last month when becoming the first player to win back-to-back World Youth titles.
I'd still back Cross to come through again - although don't be surprised if he comes up against Jonny Clayton instead after the form he showed at the Grand Slam of Darts - but then a quarter-final with Michael Smith will be the pivotal moment.
It's almost like everyone is waiting for Bully Boy to win a big one after showing so much more promise in 2018 and nobody can doubt his star potential, which he nearly converted into Premier League glory earlier this year.
Smith beat his mentor Anderson in the semi-finals before being blown away by a ruthless MVG at the O2 but since then he's won a televised title at the Shanghai Masters and came agonisingly close to triumphing at the World Series of Darts Finals last month.
In the most dramatic of finals in Vienna, the St Helens man forced a deciding leg against James Wade only to miss five darts for the title as The Machine capitalised.
Although I really like the inflated price on Cross to win the title, I do also want to back Smith given how loudly he's been knocking on the door.
Mensur Suljovic is the other danger in this section of the draw, of course, but he's had personal problems recently and also suffered some tough defeats in the semi-finals of both the World Grand Prix and Grand Slam of Darts.
If the Austrian ends up in another intense battle on the Ally Pally stage, how will he cope?
Joe Cullen to finally shine on the biggest stage of all
- (6) Gerwyn Price v Nathan Aspinall/Geert Nentjes
- (27) Kyle Anderson v Jeffrey de Graaf/Noel Malicdem
- (11) Ian White v Wayne Jones/Devon Peterson
- (22) Steve West v Richard North/Robert Marijanovic
- (3) Peter Wright v Toni Alcinas/Craig Ross
- (30) Benito van de Pas v Micky Mansell/Jim Long
- (14) Joe Cullen v Brendan Dolan/Yuanjun Liu
- (19) Mervyn King v Jan Dekker/Lisa Ashton
- Click here for Sky Bet's fourth quarter odds
Peter Wright is the favourite to win this quarter and despite his ropey recent form, he'll no doubt be viewing this as a golden opportunity to go deep in the tournament and potentially reach his first world final since 2014.
Snakebite was looking pretty hot earlier in the summer when winning the Melbourne Darts Masters and while that's his only trophy this season, he did reach the finals of the Champions League of Darts and World Grand Prix.
That said, my man in this section is Wright's prospective fourth-round opponent Joe Cullen, who is 8/1 to get through this quarter and a tempting 100/1 each-way shout for glory.
Don't be put off by the Rockstar's horrible record of just one win in seven previous visits to Alexandra Palace, because as he explained in an interview with me, he has a history of difficult draws from the days when he wasn't seeded.
This year has been a real breakthrough for Cullen in terms of performances on the televised and European Tour stages and he'll be licking his lips at being in this bracket, even if a slow player like Brendan Dolan in round two isn't an ideal way to begin.
Cullen underlined the talents we all knew he had by reaching the World Matchplay quarter-finals, where he thrashed Gerwyn Price and Daryl Gurney before missing two match darts in an epic 19-17 defeat to nine-dart hero Gary Anderson, and also made the last four of the European Championship.
He came so close to reaching his maiden TV final at the latter event in October, missing match dart against Simon Whitlock in an agonising 11-10 loss having previously come from 6-1 down to beat Rob Cross and also brushed aside Michael Smith 10-4.
His first real test will be Wright and if he's still standing after that then it could well be a cracker against pantomime villain Gerwyn Price.
The Welshman clearly divided opinion due to his histrionics on stage in that absorbing Grand Slam of Darts final against Anderson, which in some ways overshadowed what was a terrific performance, combining battling spirit and quality darts.
Weaker players would have crumbled when trailing such an opponent 11-8 and 13-11 but he kept landing the big shots and rattled his legendary opponent before revelling in the chorus of boos which greeted his victory and trophy presentation.
However, this doesn't make him a world-beater - after all we can't ignore that Simon Whitlock missed five match darts in their Wolverhampton quarter-final; Price's journey could so easily have ended in disappointment.
The Iceman also got a taste of his own medicine against Krzystof Ratajski at the recent Players Championship Finals after leading 5-1 so I wouldn't even bank on him getting as far as the last eight here.
Recommended Bets: PDC World Darts Championship
1pt Rob Cross to win the world title at 22/1
1pt Michael Smith to win the world title at 14/1
0.5pt each-way Joe Cullen to win the world title at 100/1 (1/2 1,2)
0.5pt Krzysztof Ratajski to win the first quarter at 33/1
1pt Daryl Gurney to win the second quarter at 6/1
Related Darts Content
- World Darts Championship draw & schedule
- John Part's predictions & best bets
- Watch every World Darts Championship nine-darter
- 2018 PDC event calendar & results
- 2019 Premier League darts fixtures
- 2018 Premier League darts results
- Sky Bet's darts odds
- 2019 PDC season calendar