We are in the middle of the busiest and in my view, the most exciting, period of snooker season. Three ranking tournaments now follow in immediate succession, with another two to follow before the season-ending World Championship marathon in Sheffield.
The European Masters is one of the least prestigious events, but vitally important nonetheless. A chance for all to transform their seasons going into Sheffield. For lower-tier players to make the ranking jump, and improve their position, to the big guns looking to fine-tune, build some momentum and peak when it matters.
Nobody more so than Mark Selby. It is far, far too early to write off the Jester’s chances of landing a fifth world title but there’s been very little evidence of the required standard this term. Don’t be surprised if he plays himself into form over the weeks ahead.
However I would want to see some evidence of improvement before taking him to defend this title, especially given that he isn’t, like 60 of the 64 players, through to the last-64 already. Selby must first clear a very tough hurdle in the form of Matt Selt.
Tough draw for defending champ
Selt is a potential winner in his own right. Progressive over the last couple of years, conqueror of Judd Trump at the UK Championship, semi-finalist in last year’s Gibralter Open. In what is by far the weakest section, he would be a leading contender if beating Selby.
After Selby, second best in this section is Luca Brecel – courtesy of that pre-Xmas burst of form that may or may not be sustained, followed by Zhou Yuelong, who hasn’t kicked on as expected this term. Again, perhaps this is the week.
Day should go well from this draw
Ryan Day is much preferred to that crowd. Inconsistent may be his brand but this three-time ranking title winner should have way too much class for anyone he’ll encounter prior to the last-16 and Day won’t especially fear any of the above.
Quarter-two is much more competitive and a headache to resolve. Man of the moment with three recent titles is Neil Robertson, but the Aussie will have his work cut out from his draw. Kyren Wilson, Yan Bingtao, Barry Hawkins, David Gilbert and Cao Yupeng are all in this section.
Follow Pang Junxu for the long-term
A case could be made for any of them or several dangerous outsiders. I’m opting for the contender with what seems a slightly easier route. Kyren Wilson – generally ultra-reliable against lesser players – has a tricky opener against Jamie Jones but if winning, a relatively easy last-32 match. In the meantime, the rest could carve each other up.
To be honest, I wouldn’t deter anyone from backing Robertson at 5.79/2. He’s in the best form of anyone. But equally, back-to-back winners are pretty rare and he’s entitled to slip up somewhere. There are more than enough hurdles here.
Yupeng – whom I believe can make it to the top – came in for very serious consideration. Instead, though, I’ll opt for a cheap bet on another Chinese player with massive potential at massive odds. Pang Junxu hasn’t yet shown the brilliance of last season but he will, somewhere down the line.
Ronnie ready to win again
Quarter three is primed to produce yet another renewal of snooker’s El Clasico, with Ronnie O’Sullivan and John Higgins scheduled to meet in the quarter-finals. It would be their fifth match this season – Higgins won them all (most recently in the Championship League).
One possible fly in the ointment is Tom Ford, who is scheduled to meet Higgins in the last-32 and won their last two matches. Ford is just the type who is overdue a breakthrough and whose best chance of doing so would be at this type of second-tier event.
Higgins aside, I find it hard to see anyone else in this section stopping O’Sullivan. The likeliest pair – Jack Lisowski and Ali Carter – have terrible records against the Rocket.
Trump hard to trust on recent evidence
It was notable to see Ronnie toppling Judd Trump at the Players Championship, thus proving to himself that he can still do it against the best, and bodes well for their potential semi-final encounter. Until very recently, I’d have taken Trump given the choice but that can’t be justified on this season’s evidence.
Indeed Trump presents a real dilemma. Following him events of this stature has been a goldmine. His draw is nice. He must be itching to find his best form, given a relatively poor season to date. Perhaps he’ll peak at the right time for Sheffield, unlike previous years. Or perhaps he’s genuinely lacking in confidence.
Saengkham rates the best R1 bet
Either way, I’m swerving him this week. He just hasn’t done enough this term for me. Instead the picks in this final sections are two outsiders whom regular readers will know well. Both Hossein Vafaei and Noppon Saengkham will make a much bigger mark in this sport than they have so far.
Vafaei won’t have it easy, starting with Anthony McGill, but is perfectly capable of beating Trump if they meet in the last-16. He has done so before – winning their last three encounters, no less.
In addition to the 175/1 outright odds, Saengkham is my bet of the first round, as outsider against Shaun Murphy. ‘The Magician’ has been struggling badly for form and fitness and this Thai opponent is a horrible start to the tournament for a player with serious confidence issues.
Follow Paul on Twitter @paulmotty