It's never too early to start talking about the Crucible. Even if it is, I'm going to.
The 888.com World Championship gets underway in precisely two months time. I got to thinking about who might win it after someone remarked to me that it is ‘the most open World Championship’ ever.
I actually disagree with this and think it will come down to a straight fight between six players – five in their 20s and one in his 30s.
The 20-somethings are Stephen Maguire, Neil Robertson, Ding Junhui, Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy. The 30-something is Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Let’s deal with the latter first. It would be foolish to write off Ronnie’s chances after what happened at the Welsh Open. He suffered similar disappointment when he lost the 2004 Wembley Masters 10-9 to Paul Hunter from 7-2 up and bounced back to land a second world title at Sheffield.
If O’Sullivan comes good in April/May he will, as ever, take some stopping. We don’t know yet who he will play in the first round (the draw is on March 11) but after that it seems quite favourable until the semi-finals.
Maguire made the early running this season, winning the Northern Ireland Trophy and reaching the UK Championship final. Has he peaked too early? I’d say after his semi-final disappointment against John Higgins at the Crucible last year that he’ll get himself up for this year’s event like never before.
He will probably have to beat Robertson in the second round, which will be no easy task despite the Aussie’s lack of form this season.
I expect Robertson to start playing well soon and remember this: none of the last three winners (Murphy, Dott and Higgins) had any sort of season heading into the World Championships they eventually won.
Selby is, of course, on a roll and his tough, never-say-die style will take some beating. For someone being labelled by some as a plodding grinder, he can actually knock in the breaks as well (three in a row against Ebdon last year and four in the Masters final). I expect Selby to go close at the Crucible.
Murphy is Mr. Consistency but, like all top players, would prefer trophies. I’d be amazed if he didn’t feature in the quarter-finals at least.
And what of Ding? Right now, for various reasons, he’s my tip to win it. Yes, his form has dipped in and out of late but if he can bring it all together – as he has before – he’s as good as anyone.
The Chinese potter made his Crucible debut last year and was unlucky to draw O’Sullivan. This season he’s seeded straight through and can stay at home – or at least at home-from-home – at his Sheffield base, away from the circus that is the World Championship.
And I know this: in terms of the interest it would create, there could be no better winner for snooker.