Fresh from the awards night at The Dorchester – yes, modern-day darts has expensive taste – the top 16 are back on the scene to contest the Unibet Masters in Milton Keynes this weekend.
With changes in both venue and scheduling – the former likely due to the rather vocal Scottish crowd at the last edition – James Wade is back to defend the title he won in dramatic fashion a little under three months ago in Edinburgh.
Here’s a preview of the first-round match-ups, all best-of-19 leg encounters.
James Wade vs Mervyn King
Wade starts his campaign against the man who squandered a cluster of match darts to beat him in last year’s final, Mervyn King. Both suffered early exits at the World Championships – King was ousted in the first round by Max Hopp while Wade fell in the next round to Stephen Bunting – and will be keen to start 2015 off on a good note.
The match should be full of high-quality finishing – a trait which served both of them well as they enjoyed strong 2014’s. It’s a tough one to call but with King’s recent Achilles trouble, as well as a trapped sciatic nerve, Wade has the edge in this one.
Gary Anderson vs Andy Hamilton
Playing his first match as a world champion, Gary Anderson opens his title bid against the struggling Andy Hamilton. Victory over Phil Taylor in the final at the Alexandra Palace capped off a brilliant 12 months for the Scotsman, and he is a massive favourite for this match.
Hamilton was fortunate to reach the last 16 at the Worlds, with unconvincing wins over Dave Richardson and Kyle Anderson, before being whitewashed by Peter Wright. It capped off an unassuming year for The Hammer and his form of late makes it hard to envisage him getting close in this one.
Simon Whitlock vs Raymond van Barneveld
Simon Whitlock is the higher seed for his clash with five-time world champion Raymond van Barneveld but the Australian has been out of sorts, with his first-round exit at Ally Pally culminating a torrid year for The Wizard – a result which has also seen him miss out on this year’s Premier League.
A dogged run to the semi-finals in London displayed fighting qualities from van Barneveld that have become all too rare. Despite not playing his best darts, the Dutchman is finding a way to win matches. If the new-found grit is on show, Barney should have little trouble dispatching Whitlock, who could hurtle down the rankings in 2015.
Phil Taylor vs Terry Jenkins
After the Daily Mirror incorrectly reported Phil Taylor would miss this event following the death of his mother, the 16-time world champion confirmed he would be participating and he faces a testing opening match against Terry Jenkins.
Taylor was solid, if unspectacular, in his run to another world championship final whilst Jenkins gave a good account of himself in a run to the third round. In normal circumstances Taylor progressing would seem almost a certainty, but with his personal situation, and Jenkins’ penchant for an upset, The Bull could score an upset win.
Michael van Gerwen vs Wes Newton
With his world title defence ending in a 6-3 semi-final beating by Anderson, Michael van Gerwen will look to get back on track as he takes on Wes Newton. The world number one dazzled at times at the Worlds while Newton was bounced out ignominiously by Spanish qualifier Cristo Reyes on the opening night. The Dutchman should win through comfortably.
Adrian Lewis vs Ian White
Adrian Lewis is probably still scratching his head from his last 16 loss to van Barneveld last month in a match he dominated, but somehow failed to close out. Stoke-on-Trent’s Ian White meets Lewis in Milton Keynes and a similarly off-guard Lewis performance could see White with a chance. That said, if Jackpot is near his best he should prevail in a race to 10 legs.
Robert Thornton vs Dave Chisnall
Robert Thornton threw some of his best arrows in a run to the quarter-finals at Ally Pally, and will be confident ahead of his clash with Dave Chisnall. After reaching the final in November’s Grand Slam of Darts, Chizzy failed to replicate that form at the Worlds, as he was conquered in the second round by Benito van de Pas. Both players are evenly matched though and this one is fiendishly difficult to call. It could go 10-9 either way.
Peter Wright vs Brendan Dolan
Following a confident run to the last eight in London, Peter Wright matches up against Northern Ireland’s Brendan Dolan at the Masters. Snakebite, who has vowed to prove his doubters wrong this year, should have enough in hand to beat a steady opponent whose tendency to miss doubles at crucial times could ultimately cost him.
Michael van Gerwen vs Robert Thornton
Peter Wright vs Adrian Lewis
Phil Taylor vs Raymond van Barneveld
James Wade vs Gary Anderson
Michael van Gerwen vs Peter Wright
Phil Taylor vs Gary Anderson
Michael van Gerwen vs Gary Anderson
Predicted Champion: Gary Anderson
The action gets under way on Saturday at 12.45pm and all of the matches are broadcast on ITV4 in the United Kingdom.