Richard Mann previews the Dafabet Masters where Ronnie O'Sullivan is strong favourite to lift the title for an eighth time.
Fresh from a Christmas break following his record-breaking seventh UK Championship success and 19th Triple Crown title, all eyes will be on Ronnie O'Sullivan as the snooker circus heads to Alexandra Palace for one of the most prestigious events on the calendar, the Dafabet Masters.
The Masters is one of the great prizes in snooker, a tournament steeped in history and one that every professional snooker player is desperate to win.
My earliest memories of watching the sport, or any sport for that matter, are dominated by Masters finals. The buzz of staying up late on a Sunday night to witness the giants of the game do battle at the iconic Wembley Conference Centre with the excellent and much-missed David Vine doing the steering of the BBC's coverage.
As a Yorkshireman, or a Yorkshire schoolboy as it was back then, Paul Hunter's dominance of this event before losing his battle with cancer in 2006 are treasured memories that most snooker fans of that era will never forget while Mark Williams' 10-9 defeat of Stephen Hendry in 1998 was surely one of the most dramatic conclusions to a snooker tournament that we will ever see.
The Masters has a habit of producing great snooker and great theatre. Assembling the top 16 players in the world to play for a huge prize fund - £600,000 in total this year - clearly helps but this tournament is about so much more than money and it invariably brings out the very best in snooker's elite.
The 2019 renewal sees O'Sullivan head the market in the middle of a campaign that had already seen him win the Champions Of Champions and the Shanghai Masters prior to that fabulous success in York.
In a bid to to keep himself fresh, The Rocket has decided to pick and choose his events this term and has only tasted defeat on two occasions - in the semi-finals of the English Open and the final of the Northern Ireland Open - so it isn't easy to make a case for anyone lowering his colours this week.
A first-round encounter with former world champion Stuart Bingham is no penalty kick but he has avoided the likes of Mark Selby and Judd Trump and will surely fancy his chances of making a winning start.
However, he does find himself in the same side of the draw as defending champion Mark Allen, a player he beat in the final of UK Championship final before the Northern Irishman went on to win in Scotland the following week.
Allen has matured into a wonderful all-round snooker player with a rock-solid temperament to boot and having beaten O'Sullivan on the way to winning here 12 months ago, he certainly won't be taking a backwards step if, as expected, they meet in the last four.
As such, those contemplating the 9/4 about O'Sullivan have reason to be cautious and the presence of Allen in the same side of the draw is enough to persuade me to reluctantly pass over the The Rocket at such cramped odds.
While O'Sullivan and Allen are the clear front-runners on recent form, it is easy to forget that Selby is the current world number one and he has won a title this season, the China Championship back in September.
Selby has proved uncharacteristically inconsistent since then and crashed out early in York when seemingly coming nicely into form following a semi-final loss to O'Sullivan in Beflast only weeks earlier.
O'Sullivan was lucky to come through that match having fluked a red when badly snookered and seemingly set to lose the final-frame decider. The rest, as they say, is history as O'Sullivan went on to clear the the table but Selby played really well, producing something close to his best, and a big win might just be round the corner.
As the season progresses, Selby's form has tended to take on an upward trajectory in recent years and, with the World Championships in Sheffield drawing ever closer, he could be hot in the next few months.
Although disappointing at the Crucible last year, he arrived there chasing a fourth world title having won at the China Open earlier that month and it is no secret that the longer matches on offer in tournaments such as this one and the World Championship suit his style of play much better.
Having lifted the Masters trophy three times already, as well as finishing runner-up on two other occasions, he clearly likes this this course and distance and despite not been at his sparkling best over the last 12 months, his impressive CV and incredible bottle under pressure means he is always to be feared in a high profile event such as this one.
I still think O'Sullivan is the most likely winner next week but his current price makes limited appeal in a market where from a value perspective, Selby stands out like a sore thumb at 8/1.
We've seen enough from him recently to think he isn't too far away from finding peak form and given that he finds himself on the opposite side of the draw to O'Sullivan and Allen, Selby has to be the play.
I would expect him to have too much nous for the enigmatic Stephen Maguire in the first round, for all the Scot can match anyone on his day, and the level of hype surrounding Trump's clash with Kyren Wilson means the winner of that one could easily be a little flat when potentially facing Selby in the last eight.
Assuming all has gone to plan by that point, Selby's price will have shortened considerably and come the business end of a major tournament, he has always proven tough to stop.
Elsewhere, the aforementioned 'grudge' match between Trump and Wilson promises to be the highlight of the opening round, with the former's supreme talent sure to be tested by his rivals' rock-solid safety game and strong long potting.
Whoever comes out on top will claim the bragging rights for a little while at least, while there have been enough positive signs of late from John Higgins, Mark Williams and Shaun Murphy to suggest they could easily enjoy a good run in London.
With only four matches standing in the way of 16 players and the Masters title, it is sure to be a sprint to the finish, but one for which Selby might just be peaking at the right time.
Posted at 1530 GMT on 08/01/19.