Richard Mann previews the World Snooker Championship which begins at the Crucible Theatre on Saturday.
Recommended bets - World Snooker Championship, outright
For details of advised bookmakers and each-way terms, visit our transparent tipping record
The World Snooker Championship gets under way in Sheffield on Saturday with this year’s tournament having the potential to be one of the most intriguing in recent memory.
Chasing a sixth world title, 42-year-old Ronnie O’Sullivan heads the betting and given the form he has produced all throughout the season, it is easy to see why.
The Rocket has been the outstanding player on the tour this term, winning the English Open, Shanghai Masters, UK Championship, World Grand Prix and Players Championship.
Widely regarded as the greatest ever to grace the sport and arguably boasting a stronger all-round game now than at any time during in his career, he is sure to prove hugely popular with punters who made him their champion a long time ago.
With his peerless break-building now approaching 1,000 competitive centuries and his long potting still astonishingly impressive, O’Sullivan has looked to have the game cracked this season with his ever-improving safety play making him almost impossible to stop at times.
O’Sullivan will be disappointed with his more recent Crucible record, however, two quarter-final finishes and a second round exit in the last three years giving merit to the argument that a 17-day marathon doesn’t play to his strengths any more.
O’Sullivan should safely negotiate the first week but he could find things tougher in the latter stages and at the current odds, I’m happy to take on the Rocket with his nemesis, MARK SELBY.
If there is one player in the modern game who can go toe to toe with O’Sullivan, it is Selby, victorious when the pair met in the 2014 World Championship final, overcoming a 10-5 deficit on the way to his first Crucible title.
Selby is one of the few modern players who doesn’t appear to be intimidated by O’Sullivan’s aura; he knows he has the game to take down O’Sullivan and if anything, his flawless safety play and ability to grind out scrappy frames has, at times, left O’Sullivan short of answers.
As well proving himself one of the few players able to face up to O’Sullivan, Selby has developed quite a love affair with the Crucible Theatre and invariably finds his best form when Sheffield is on the horizon.
Selby has been crowned world champion three times in the last four years, strengthening the belief that the longer-frame matches and a 17-day grind to the line suits his style perfectly.
This was again evident last year when he held off an in-form Ding Junhui 17-15 in their semi-final clash before coming from behind in yet another final, this time when beating John Higgins 18-15.
Selby’s biggest strength is his ability to seize the moment.
This was most apparent in last year’s final when finding himself 10-4 behind with three frames to play in the second session.
Despite being second best for much of the first two sessions, Selby was able to dust himself down and find a way to pinch the last three frames of the evening, reducing the deficit to 10-7 overnight.
He never looked back from there, going on to win in good style, and even against a champion of Higgins’ class, and one who will go down as one of the finest tactical players in the history of the game, Selby was still able to dominate the safety exchanges.
Whereas someone like O’Sullivan might struggle to maintain his highest standards through the course of over two weeks of snooker, Selby appears to thrive in such conditions.
Despite Selby’s obvious love affair with the World Championship, another Crucible title didn’t appear likely for long periods of this season as he struggled through large parts of the current campaign.
However, as is Selby’s way, he maintained his unwavering belief in his game and duly came good when triumphing in the China Open recently.
Having looked sharp from the outset, Selby sauntered through the early rounds, scoring heavily and looking to have his safety game on point before brushing aside Barry Hawkins in the final.
As if we should have ever doubted the world number one, it was a bold reminder of just how good Selby is and given he comes into the World Championship with his season once again appearing to have been geared around him peaking upon arrival at the Crucible, he makes strong appeal at 4/1.
Though there is the potential for a couple of tricky matches in the early rounds - he will play Joe Perry in round one - Selby will be relatively happy with how the draw has worked out, one which keeps apart from the likes of O’Sullivan and Ding Junhui until another potential final.
That brings us nicely onto Ding, a wonderful break-builder who will again carry the hopes of China as he bids to win a first world title.
Having made the final here in 2016, Ding enjoyed another fine run 12 months on, beating his idol Ronnie O’Sullivan in the quarter-finals before narrowly losing out to that man Selby in a high-quality semi-final.
Like Selby, he looks to have tailored his season around another tilt at snooker’s blue riband and there was a temptation to side with him at 14/1.
A potentially mouthwatering semi-final clash between Ding and O’Sullivan jumps off the paper but while an on-song Ding is more than capable of beating the Rocket again, recent Crucible history suggests Selby would have his number if setting up a repeat of their 2016 final clash.
Judd Trump remains one of the biggest puzzles in snooker and at 15/2, he is another I am happy to pass over.
A huge talent who is more than capable of bulldozing the game’s very best, Trump was a finalist here in 2011 and has made it to the last four on a couple of other occasions.
However, his old frailties in the safety department have again come to a head this season and the suspicion remains that the likes of Selby and O’Sullivan might have too much nous for him if meeting in the latter stages.
He has long seemed destined to win a world title, he certainly has the ability, but as John Higgins can testify, it takes much more than potting and break-building to claim the biggest prize in snooker.
Higgins has been crowned Crucible champion four times now and despite his advancing years, proved he still has plenty left in the tank when reaching the final here last year.
His form has continued to hold up this season, a record fifth Welsh Open title the highlight of another impressive campaign, and it is testament to himself, O’Sullivan and Mark Williams that those three legends of the game are still enjoying such success in a sport which is littered with hungry, young players snapping at their heels.
Williams has added two more ranking title successes to his name this season and has looked very close to his best at times, while Shaun Murphy, victorious here back in 2005, has been one of the most consistent players on the tour in the last 12 months and is more than capable of putting a good run together.
He has been troubled by a recurrence of an old neck injury of late but has had plenty of time to recover since his early exit from the China Open.
Neil Robertson is another former winner of this event worth noting; a brilliant long potter who is one of the heaviest scorers in the game when on song.
His more recent form has been plagued by inconsistency and while he is hard to trust with confidence, he played really well to reach the semi-finals of the China Open recently and remains a very dangerous opponent.
Of the qualifiers, Ryan Day has enjoyed a splendid season that has brought him three trophies and he looks a nightmare draw for Anthony McGill in round one.
Stephen Maguire, a two-time Crucible semi-finalist and a class act on his day, hasn't fared so well on the draw front and must face O'Sullivan in the opening round.
Preview posted at 1300 BST on 19/04/18