1pt Mark Williams to win the World Championship at 40/1 (General)
1pt Yan Bingtao to win the World Championship at 25/1 (General)
Having been convinced for a number of months that Mark Selby would return to Sheffield and claim a fourth world title of his already illustrious career, I must now, on the eve of the Betfred World Championship, admit to having a wobble in confidence.
So strong was Selby’s form before Christmas – confirmed by wins at the European Masters and Scottish Open – it seemed only fair to assume that he was back to the level of form that helped him plunder three Crucible titles between 2014 and 2017.
Following a couple of seasons which had seen his confidence clearly take a hit, the decision to enlist the help of renowned coach Chris Henry had appeared to be working wonders, with his scoring boots back on his feet and, more crucially, that knack of grinding out close frames having returned to his armoury.
With Sheffield and the World Championship so obviously the pinnacle of Selby’s season, the apple of his eye and the tournament he builds towards from Christmas, and the motivation to finally put to bed the memories of his agonising semi-final defeat in this event last year, something special would surely be needed to stop him this time around.
I do believe that still to be the case, just as I expect him to improve on what he has shown in recent weeks, and just as I also expect him to prove too streetwise and too bloody-minded for the dangerous Kurt Maflin in round one.
The problem is, Selby doesn’t appear to be peaking for Sheffield. In years gone by, the 37-year-old has made winning the China Open a habit and the perfect preparation for the ‘big one’. By way of contrast, he was routed 10-3 by Neil Robertson at the recent Tour Championship following an early exit in the Gibraltar Open and a 6-0 hammering by John Higgins at the Tour Championship.
Despite this apparent downturn in form, Selby is shorter than he was at Christmas and we now know that he finds himself in the same half of the draw as the likes of Ronnie O'Sullivan and John Higgins.
Still, Selby ascended to the top of the sport by doing things the hard way and I’m sure he will have been relieved to have been kept apart from Neil Robertson having lost to the Australian in all four meetings between the pair since Selby outsmarted him in this tournament last summer.
Robertson – taking inspiration from O’Sullivan – will feel his decision to up the ante against Selby this season by playing thicker, more aggressive safety shots and refusing very few pots, will continue to pave the way for success, but the likes of Maflin and co won’t find it quite so easy. Not at the Crucible, very much the lion’s den and one Selby so often owns.
The conundrum for punters when weighing up Selby, particularly those not already invested, is trying to balance his lack of recent form with the very real prospect that he will feel his way into the event like he has so many times before. It was exactly that way last year and but for O’Sullivan’s genius late show, we would, in all probability, be talking about Selby as defending champion.
On balance, I think 8/1 for a man who generally comes alive at the Crucible is about the right price, for all Maflin should present a tough opening examination, and the carrot of exacting revenge on O'Sullivan at the same stage as last year's epic will no doubt spur him on.
I’m happy enough with my antepost position, if not as confident as I was a few months ago, but I’m duty bound to add to my book with any number of the field having positives and negatives to consider in equal measure.
Having just touched upon Robertson, I’ll start with him at the end of a season that has seen him claim two of the most prestigious crowns in the sport: the UK Championship and the Tour Championship. Throw into the mix two runner-up finishes at the English Open and Champion Of Champions and Robertson’s credentials are patently strong, particularly given the manner in which he has tailored his campaign around the big events.
Such an approach really ought to benefit Robertson in Sheffield and I’ve always loved the freshness angle with him, but the fact his 2010 triumph remains his only world title does suggest that this tournament and its unique test doesn’t play to his strengths. Make no mistake, Robertson is a modern-day great, but as hard as it is to win at the Crucible, his talents deserve more world titles. At the very least, he ought to have been closer than he has in the 11 subsequent years: one subsequent semi-final, seven years ago, is just not enough.
You sense he knows that, too, but he played his best snooker in the first week before John Higgins did a number on him in the last eight in 2019, while he had no answers to Selby last year when unable to land the early knockout he is so used to producing over the shorter distance.
There’s no doubt that he is a class act, and one of the form contenders coming into the tournament, but as his overall record would suggest, I just don’t believe the challenges posed by the World Championship help his game in the same way they do others. As such, I’m happy to let him go at 11/2.
For all he’s favourite, I actually think Trump is a more appealing betting proposition than Robertson, and O’Sullivan, too, for that matter, and while I’ll try, picking holes in the 2019 champion isn’t easy.
While that maiden world title victory was spectacular, his defeat of Higgins at times astonishing, it’s what Trump has done since that is the most impressive. Six ranking titles came in the season following, five more this term, and while others have cherry picked their events when the schedule has been overbearing, Trump has continued to show up and continued to win.
It’s worth remembering that Trump ended 2020 in such dominant form that the following month’s Masters looked his for the taking until a positive Covid-19 test ruled him out, while last summer’s lockdown appeared to halt his momentum somewhat after he had breezed to another ranking success in Gibraltar.
Perhaps his race had been run by the time Kyren Wilson beat him in the quarter-finals at the Crucible last year, but his ability to rebound after defeat and find a way to win frames and matches he ought to lose has become unparalleled. Finding himself 5-1 down to Barry Hawkins in the semi-finals of the German Masters before coming back to prevail 6-5 and then cruising to victory in the final a day later was Trump in microcosm.
Yet still there are doubts. For all Trump’s dominance and insatiable appetite for winning, he doesn’t currently hold any of the Triple Crown titles. Of course, the Masters was out of his hands, but the match-ball pink he missed in the UK Championship final was the stuff of nightmares while he barely raised a gallop in the previous season’s marquee events, despite winning for fun elsewhere. This has bled into the best-of-the-rest tournaments, too: the recent Tour Championship was one such example and he fluffed his lines there, so too in the semi-finals of the Champion Of Champions.
With each of those big defeats, the post-match interviews have become slightly more agitated, starting with his defeat to Stephen Maguire at last season’s Tour Championship through to his loss to Hakwins in the same tournament this year. Perhaps even Trump is beginning to get frustrated at winning Northern Ireland Opens every week, but not the ones players of his calibre are truly measured by.
I’m nit-picking at the best player in the world, I know that, but why shouldn’t I when we’re talking about backing an 11/4 favourite in a 32-man field featuring more past winners than my maths can keep up with?
Make no mistake, I still think Trump is the man to beat and of the market principals, is the most appealing at the prices. However, with Selby already on side, and Trump having a few black marks next to his name, I won’t be backing him. I will, though, be the first to admit that my case for taking him on might not stand up under close scrutiny.
Any snooker judge worth their salt would be able to make a strong case for John Higgins, too; a four-time winner of this event who reached three consecutive finals in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The upside to Higgins is that he’s probably playing better snooker now than he has done for four or five years, and his runner-up finish at the Masters and stunning victory over O'Sullivan in the Players Championship just enforces that point to us, and to Higgins himself.
The Scot is always a tough nut to crack at the Crucible, and he provided these pages with a hefty each-way return when runner-up in 2019 when not coming into the tournament in the same form as he will this time around. He will surely take some stopping, but while he was a 22/1 chance a couple of years ago, he is 10/1 this time around and a few years older, too. I just can’t recommend him at that price.
Nor can I back O’Sullivan, who is the defending champion having produced a herculean effort to prevail for a sixth time at the Crucible last August, coming through that classic encounter with Selby before overpowering Kyren Wilson in the final.
Whether climbing that mountain has left its mark on O’Sullivan is a moot point, but while he has battled hard this term and proved ultra-consistent, he has lost five finals in matches where he just hasn’t possessed the weapons in his arsenal when his opponents have raised the bar.
That’s not to say he can’t win. History has taught us to never underestimate O’Sullivan, and in a strange way, what had been to O’Sullivan’s detriment in this event for a while might actually be to his advantage now. For so long, O’Sullivan hated the grind of the World Championship, preferring instead to chase a quick kill and to then move on.
As he has grown older, those easy wins haven’t quite been as readily available and he has been happier to scrap and fight, to stay in the contest and try to win in different ways. It is the antithesis of O’Sullivan in many ways, but such an approach can be perfect for Sheffield and this born winner won’t mind how he gets the job done if he is to equal Stephen Hendry’s record of seven world titles.
I think O’Sullivan will play well and make the quarter-finals at least, but I fear he will be outgunned if meeting an on-song Higgins, Selby or Trump in the latter stages – as has been the case already this season.
Of the other big names in the draw, last year’s runner-up, Wilson, has to be respected on the back of another solid campaign, and the giant strides he has made with his positional play marks him down as a big threat.
But for a missed blue against Trump in the quarter-finals of the UK Championship, Wilson might already be a Triple Crown winner, but as things stand he still has something to prove at the very highest level, not so MARK WILLIAMS who has been there and done it all so many times before.
By his own admission, there have been times since Williams roared back to his best to claim his third world title in 2018 that the Welshman has looked close to finished. However, he is enjoying his snooker again and played really well to reach the last four of the Welsh Open in February.
Since then, Williams produced some of his best form in some time to finish runner-up to the Wilson in the Championship League and I think he’s in a good place. I certainly think his game is in better shape than last summer when he pushed O’Sullivan all the way in the quarter-finals, and it should take a good performance to see the back of him this year.
Berthed in a red-hot second quarter with Higgins and Selby, that could easily happen, but his first-round match against Crucible debutant Sam Craigie might be a baptism of fire for the latter, while anyone who comes up against Williams will know they have their work cut out against one of the very best of all time.
This is a tough quarter, that much is clear, but while my antepost pick, Selby, is now 8/1, and Higgins 10/1, Williams – a three-time Crucible champion himself – is 40/1, despite appearing to have his game in good working order and with his laidback attitude always counting for plenty on the big stage. I can't let him go unbacked.
Also in that 'quarter of death' is Mark Allen and quotes of 28/1 about the Northern Irishman have the potential to look ridiculous were he to find anything like the form that saw him win the Champions of Champions earlier in the campaign.
He saw off a stellar field there – beating O’Sullivan, Trump and Robertson – but has struggled badly in recent months while experimenting with new cues, and having been a model of consistency over the last few seasons, he has suddenly become hard to predict.
On price alone, he has to be of interest, and I do wonder whether his recent comments about Jimmy White receiving another invitational tour card from World Snooker were designed to bring inevitable heat on himself and thus fuel his motivation to show up well in Sheffield.
When Allen first came onto the scene, he was a fiery character – outspoken and always up for the fight – while more recently he has matured into one of the most respected players on the tour who speaks particularly well in defeat or victory. Perhaps he feels he has just lost that little bit of bite that once made him so dangerous – that killer instinct – and in making an enemy out of White’s army of fans, he can’t be anything other than gritted teeth and with a point to prove when he arrives in Sheffield.
I like this angle, but his recent form and Crucible record less so, and from the opposite side of the draw, I'll take YAN BINGTAO at 25/1.
The Chinese youngster belied his inexperience when becoming the youngest player since Ding Junhui to win a ranking title when triumphant at the Riga Masters in July 2019 and, following a string of solid displays thereafter, enjoyed the biggest moment of his career when beating Higgins in the final of the Masters in January.
Bingtao was on the back foot for much of that match, for much of the week, in fact, having had to come through a series of deciding frames, but his fabulous temperament was once again in evidence and he ultimately ran out a deserving winner.
While he might not be as flashy as many of his contemporaries, or score as heavily, Bingtao tends to make his breaks when it counts and his safety game is already right up with anyone else in the game – an astounding thing to say when you consider he is still only 21-years-old.
Following a strong season last term, I had expected Bingtao to be a live threat at the Crucible and he lost nothing in defeat when edged out 13-11 by Trump in the second round. He is sure to have learnt plenty from that and there can be no doubt that he is a much more rounded operator now.
A tough opening match against Martin Gould offers no easy introduction, but there are few penalty kicks in this tournament nowadays, and his draw doesn't look too bad thereafter, until a potential rematch with Trump in the last eight.
He'd need to raise his game again there, but he's been doing that ever since he made the final of the Northern Ireland in 2017 and I won't be the only one who thinks his style of play and granite all-round game is destined to take him far in this tournament before too long.
This year might well be the year and this Triple Crown winner joins two former Crucible champions, Selby and Williams, on a shortlist that has a blend of youth and experience, plenty of character, and star quality in spades.
Preview posted at 1830 BST 15/04/12
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