From 21st-29th July, the PDC will stage the 25th annual World Matchplay tournament at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool.
Phil Taylor will not be defending the title he won in stunning fashion 12 months ago, leaving an opportunity for someone else to pave their way into the history books.
32 players will fancy their chances at claiming this prestigious title and here we profile the dark horses capable of lifting the newly rechristened Phil Taylor Trophy….
James Wade (33-1)
The 35-year-old from Aldershot joins Michael van Gerwen as the only other previous winner of the Matchplay in this year’s draw.
Wade has turned his form completely around, following a terrible 2017 by his standards.
Since losing in the first-round of the World Championships in January, he came through qualifying for all 2018 European Tour events- reaching 1 final and two semi-finals to drag himself back into a seeded position for most upcoming events.
He also stunned Michael van Gerwen 8-3 in the quarter-finals of the World Series event in Vegas last weekend, averaging 102.45 in a vintage performance. Eventual champion Gary Anderson narrowly pipped him at the semi-final stage in a thrilling last-leg decider.
The World No. 10 has an impeccable record in a tournament that clearly suits his relentless leg-on-leg consistency.
Having reached the final on debut in 2006, James swept aside Terry Jenkins 18-7 the following year to become the youngest ever winner of the event- a record that still stands today.
Runner-up 5 times in all (4 times to Taylor and once to MVG), ‘The Machine’ really has lived up to his nickname in Blackpool.
How far can he go?
Back-to-back first-round exits in the past two years belie his true potential now his top form has resurfaced.
It looked at one stage that the 7-time major champion was heading out of the World’s top 16, but having worked hard on curing a few niggling issues that crept into his game, he looks ready to launch another assault on the title.
Wade faces quick fire Dutchman Jermaine Wattimena in round 1 and should have too much quality for the debutant.
His history in the event, coupled with recent results suggests it will take a top class display to oust Wade from the tournament. A barnstorming semi-final clash with Rob Cross could be on the cards.
Mensur Suljovic (33-1)
The Austrian superstar is quickly becoming a fan favourite and already has 1 major title to his name- The Champions League of Darts he claimed last September.
Mensur’s career goes from strength to strength and it’s difficult to see a limit to what he can achieve.
Currently occupying a career-high of 6th in the Order of Merit, Suljovic hasn’t suffered after being relegated from his first Premier League campaign early this year.
Since then, ‘The Gentle’ has picked up a 3rd PDC ranking title- at the inaugural Danish Darts Open just a fortnight ago.
Impressively, he also triumphed in front of a world record 20,210 fans at the German World Series event at the back end of May, beating Rob Cross and Peter Wright in the process.
One of Mensur’s breakout performances came at this very tournament back in 2015. He shocked Gary Anderson 13-9 in the second round to make the quarter-finals of a major PDC event for only the 3rd time.
Suljovic repeated this feat last year, losing out on a semi-final berth to Northern Irishman Daryl Gurney in a very tight contest, 16-13.
How far can he go?
Previously considered an awkward spoiler of a player that the top stars would rather avoid, the affable giant has transformed into a genuine contender to win any tournament he enters.
Seeded 6th, Suljovic squares-off against darting legend Steve Beaton in round 1, with Ian White or Max Hopp the possible second-round opponent.
Holding 2018 victories over his main rivals in the bottom-half of the draw, Mensur won’t admit it but should be quietly confident of a good run in the tournament.
If other results fall in his favour, Mensur could find himself in the final come Sunday the 29th. However, it’s likely his quarter-final match-up will be World Champion Rob Cross and, if so, he will need to be at his brilliant best to advance.
Michael Smith (40-1)
Smith’s title odds are probably a reflection of his position in the draw- the same quarter as Michael van Gerwen.
‘Bully Boy’ has had a great 2018 to date, picking up 2 Pro Tour titles and performing magnificently to reach the Premier League final in May.
Subsequently, Smith has continued to reach the latter stages of tournaments on a regular basis without seriously threatening to pick up more silverware.
Worryingly, Smith’s Matchplay record is dismal to say the least- registering just two match wins in 5 appearances in Blackpool to date.
In fairness, there was nothing he could do to avoid drubbings at the hands of Raymond van Barneveld and Phil Taylor on his first two appearances in 2012 and 2014 respectively.
Thereafter, though, Smith has been on the receiving end of 3 consecutive early upsets against unseeded adversaries. Steve West completed the unwanted hat-trick in 2017 with a commanding 10-5 win over the St. Helens ace.
How far can he go?
In 2018, Michael has developed reliable B and C games to fall back on when he isn’t firing on all cylinders. He proved across the 16-week Premier League season that he is capable of winning ugly as well as blowing people away with renowned power scoring.
Smith is maturing quickly under the guidance of a mentor and close friend Gary Anderson, and is a nailed on future major champion, probably multiple times over.
Welshman Jonny Clayton is a winner on the European Tour in 2018 and should provide a stern test in the first-round, before a potential 180 bonanza against Dave Chisnall in round 2.
Expect Smith to go deeper into this tournament than he has before, probably culminating in a rematch of the Premier League final with MVG in the quarters. He might not quite be ready to gain revenge over ‘The Green Machine’ but a major triumph beckons in the near future.
Raymond van Barneveld (40-1)
The perennial dark horse for every major tournament, if van Barneveld rolls into Blackpool with his game face on the odds of 40-1 could be very generous indeed.
On the flip side, the 5-time World Champion hasn’t recorded an individual tournament victory- not even on tour- since he won his last major title at the Grand Slam, way back in 2014.
Granted, the Dutch legend picks and chooses his schedule carefully these days and, at 51 years old, few can blame him.
Having only entered 13 of a possible 38 events on the PDC calendar in 2018, ‘Barney’ will walk onto the Winter Gardens stage almost 7 weeks since he last threw a competitive dart.
If he can replicate the form he showed back then- in victory alongside van Gerwen at the World Cup of Darts- van Barneveld will be a match for anybody.
Also, he set a new personal milestone by averaging a whopping 113.38 to defeat Dimitri van den Bergh in a classic encounter at the World Cup semis.
Raymond is an ever-present here since he switched codes from the BDO in 2007 and his record was initially quite strong.
4 quarter-finals in his first 5 outings were trumped by a runners-up spot behind Phil Taylor in 2010.
Unbelievably, in the subsequent 6 years, he has stumbled in the opening rounds, leaving this coveted title as one of few that are missing from the future Hall of Famer’s C.V.
How far can he go?
Part of the cause for van Barneveld’s early exits is his lowly ranking. His lack of playing time means he doesn’t accrue the points needed to separate him from other big guns in the early rounds.
Taylor did for him in round 2 last time out and, now seeded 13th; Gary Anderson most likely awaits him at the same stage this year.
There’s no doubt Raymond has the ability to blow away anybody on his day. But he could make life slightly easier for himself if he raised his ranking to where it, arguably, should be.
Prediction: Round 2
Kyle Anderson-himself not in the greatest form- should be safely negotiated in round 1 but namesake Gary could well prove too big a hurdle in round 2.
Full live coverage of the entire World Matchplay can be viewed on Sky Sports or by PDCTV subscribers in full HD!
2018 BetVictor World Matchplay
Schedule of Play
Saturday July 21 (7PM)
Adrian Lewis v James Wilson
Dave Chisnall v Keegan Brown
Michael van Gerwen v Jeffrey de Zwaan
Michael Smith v Jonny Clayton
Sunday July 22
Afternoon Session (1PM)
Darren Webster v Steve Lennon
Ian White v Max Hopp
Gerwyn Price v Joe Cullen
Daryl Gurney v Steve West
Evening Session (7.30pm)
Mensur Suljovic v Steve Beaton
Gary Anderson v Stephen Bunting
Rob Cross v Mervyn King
Raymond van Barneveld v Kyle Anderson
Monday July 23 (7PM)
Kim Huybrechts v John Henderson
Simon Whitlock v Richard North
James Wade v Jermaine Wattimena
Peter Wright v Jelle Klaasen
Tuesday July 24 (7PM)
Chisnall/Brown v Smith/Clayton
Gurney/West v Price/Cullen
Van Gerwen/De Zwaan v Lewis/Wilson
G Anderson/Bunting v Van Barneveld/K Anderson
Wednesday July 25 (7PM)
Whitlock/North v Wade/Wattimena
Suljovic/Beaton v White/Hopp
Cross/King v Webster/Lennon
Wright/Klaasen v Huybrechts/Henderson
Thursday July 26 (7pm)
Friday July 27 (7PM)
Saturday July 28 (7PM)
Sunday July 29 (7PM)
First Round – Best of 19 legs
Second Round – Best of 25 legs
Quarter-Finals – Best of 31 legs
Semi-Finals – Best of 33 legs
Final – Best of 35 legs
Winner – £115,000
Runner-Up – £55,000
Semi-Finalists – £30,000
Quarter-Finalists – £17,500
Second Round Losers – £11,000
First Round Losers – £7,000
Total – £500,000