Top class snooker returns to our screens this week with the 2016 Dafabet Masters, which sees Shaun Murphy begin the defence of his title on Sunday afternoon at the Alexandra Palace, London.
Arguably the second biggest event of the year, certainly from a financial standpoint with the winner in line to take home the £200,000 top prize, as ever the tournament will see the world’s top 16 players battle to become this year’s champion.
As an invitational event this week, there are no ranking points or seeding cut-offs to worry about and so the big stories lie elsewhere.
Can Ronnie O’Sullivan maintain the form that he showed last week at Crondon Park? Can Neil Robertson make it two out of two from this season’s triple crown events or will Judd Trump make it through to his first final in London?
To the draw…
The Top Quarter
At the top of the draw we find defending champion Shaun Murphy, who became the 10th player to complete a career ‘triple crown’ of World, UK Championship and Masters titles by winning this event a year ago.
On that occasion he began with a tough opening assignment against Mark Selby and despite being top seed this year, he has again been handed a challenging opener against Mark Allen.
In terms of form it is Allen who has enjoyed the stronger season of the two, having won the Bulgarian Open and reached the final of the 188BET Champion of Champions, while Murphy made it to the final of the Paul Hunter Classic event and recently the last 16 of the Betway UK Championship.
It is Shaun who has had the better of their previous meetings, having in fact won all of their previous matches at full-ranking events, as well as their semi-final here at the Alexandra Palace a year ago 6-2. That said, many of those matches have been extremely close, often requiring a decider to settle them and it would be no surprise to see all 11 frames required once again on Sunday.
Joining the pair in this quarter are Barry Hawkins and Joe Perry, close friends away from the table who surprisingly have not met in over seven years in a match longer than the best of seven frames.
For Hawkins the season has been a steady one as he has spoken of being more selective with his scheduling than in the past, something he has been able to do following his early victory at the Kaspersky Lab Riga Open back in August.
He should come into the tournament match sharp having played two groups at the Championship League last week, where in fact he defeated Perry 3-2 in his final match.
Joe meanwhile on paper has had a solid, if not spectacular season, but has been unfortunate to run into the eventual winner at the Australian Goldfields Open, Shanghai Masters, International Championship and Champion of Champions events.
Neither player has a strong record at this event, Joe having made it to the quarter-finals for the first time a year ago before losing out to Mark Allen. Could the same happen again in 2016?
The Second Quarter
In the second section we begin with a contest between Judd Trump and Stephen Maguire, who meet at this stage of the Dafabet Masters for a second successive year.
In 2015 it was Maguire who came back from 2-0 down on his way to a 6-4 win to reach the quarter-finals and since then he has also beaten the 26-year-old 5-1 at the Australian Goldfields Open quarter-finals.
More recently, Maguire played well at the Betway UK Championship to secure his place in this competition as the 16th and final qualifier, before running into an inspired Neil Robertson at the last 16 stage.
Trump meanwhile has struggled to find his best form since his 10-9 defeat to Kyren Wilson at the Shanghai Masters back in September, but despite not having previously made the final at the Alexandra Palace, is a player who thrives on the big occasion and will be looking to kick-start his season this week.
A tough one to call and for me one that could be the pick of the round if both can play to their potential.
Awaiting the winner will be either Neil Robertson or Marco Fu, winners of the last two events carrying ranking points in 2015.
Notwithstanding his surprise defeat to amateur Ashley Hugill at the German Masters qualifiers before Christmas, Robertson arguably comes into this event as the man to beat, having recently won the 188BET Champion of Champions and Betway UK Championship events. The way he played, particularly in York was as impressive as we have seen from anyone on the tour for quite a while, as from an early stage his performances marked him out as the man to beat.
Only Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry (twice), and Mark Williams have before won each of the big three events during the same season and Robertson will be well aware of the opportunity to join that exclusive group in 2016.
Marco Fu however will have other ideas and having won the Dafabet Gibraltar Open, General Cup and also reached the quarter-finals of both the Betway UK Championship and International Championship events in the last couple of months, has also been in strong form for some time now.
Their last meeting in a match of this length came at the 2013 Australian Goldfields Open final, Fu running out a 9-6 winner on that occasion, while Robertson won their most recent meeting at the Players Championship last March.
The Third Quarter
Turning to the bottom half of the draw and we find three-time Masters champion Mark Selby, paired with 12th seeded Ricky Walden.
A semi-finalist at both the International Championship and Betway UK Championship events of late, Selby’s form has been consistent of late, despite heavy defeats in each of those two matches.
For Walden however it has been a difficult season to date, with his run to the final of the Haining Open back in October representing his strongest result.
Selby has had the better of their head to head record, notably winning their UK Championship semi-final back in 2013, although Walden did defeat the Jester 6-4 on the way to his maiden ranking event victory at the 2008 Shanghai Masters.
Joining the pair in this quarter are two players with seven world and Masters titles between them as Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams prepare to do battle once again.
The return of O’Sullivan has of course been well-documented, with defeat to Stuart Carrington at the German Masters qualifiers before Christmas an early set-back, before he looked to be back to his best at the Championship League last week, winning all eight matches and breaking through the 800 barrier on the career-centuries list.
Which Ronnie will we see this week? I would be surprised to see him not play well at an event that he has won before on five previous occasions, but at the same time this tournament is a different kettle of fish to the set-up at Crondon Park and so I do not expect him to have it all his own way either.
In Mark Williams though he certainly has a familiar opponent and one over whom he has enjoyed a strong head to head record over the past decade, having won all of their big matches before Williams was able to turn the tables at the 2014 International Championship.
Mark’s season was disrupted early on by shoulder surgery in the summer, but this did not appear to affect his results drastically and he has been particularly consistent at Kreativ Dental European Tour events, without being able to win one of them.
O’Sullivan will rightly be favourite for what is without doubt the most highly anticipated clash of the week, but a player of Williams’ class can never be underestimated.
The Bottom Quarter
We begin the final quarter with a match between John Higgins and Liang Wenbo, another that could conceivably go either way based on recent form.
Higgins of course needs no introduction, another twice former Masters champion who more recently won three ranking event titles in 2015. At the International Championship in particular last October, Higgins looked to be back to his very best, for the first time since he last won the world title back in 2011.
Surprisingly, the Scot has a relatively mixed record at the Masters, having lost in the first round on 11 occasions, including last year.
He has not however lost out to this year’s opponent Liang Wenbo before, winning all seven of their previous meetings, including 41 of their 57 frames played. That said, Liang of course made it through to his first UK Championship final only last year and so should come into this event with confidence.
Finally we have another Chinese player in Ding Junhui, who takes on reigning world champion Stuart Bingham on the tournament’s opening day.
For me this is one of the most interesting matches on paper, in that neither has enjoyed the success that they would have expected so far this season and so it is not easy to predict a winner.
One statistic that is hard to ignore is their head to head record, with Bingham having won their last seven matches in all competitions, Ding’s last win coming back at the Crucible in 2011.
On the other hand, Bingham is yet to make it beyond the last 16 of the Dafabet Masters during his career, while Ding won this event back in 2011 when it was held at the Wembley Arena for the first time. Since its move to the Alexandra Palace, Ding has also lost all four first round matches at the venue.
Stuart will be hoping that his semi-final run at the Dafabet Gibraltar Open just before Christmas proves to be something of a turning point, while Ding will be looking to find some form ahead of a crucial period in the run-up to the Betfred World Championship in April.
The action gets underway on Sunday at the Alexandra Palace, for more information visit worldsnooker.com