THE Unibet Premier League will enjoy a record-breaking debut in Germany on Thursday night, as 12,000 fans at Berlin’s Mercedes-Benz Arena witness a top-of-the-table clash between Simon Whitlock and Michael Smith.
The Premier League’s incredible growth since being introduced to the calendar in 2005 has seen the UK and Ireland’s leading arenas joined by Rotterdam Ahoy in hosting the sport’s top players.
Darts’ increasing popularity in Germany led to this year’s fourth league night being held in Berlin, with Thursday’s event set to welcome the PDC’s largest-ever crowd following an amazing response from fans.
The five massive matches in the German capital will begin with the meeting between the Premier League’s table-toppers as Whitlock and Smith bid to continue their winning starts to the season.
The pair were two of the three outsiders with sponsors Unibet ahead of the season, but after each picking up three victories to start the campaign sit two points clear of reigning champion Michael van Gerwen.
“It’s going to be amazing this week and I can’t wait,” said Whitlock. “I’m over the moon with how things have gone so far and Michael’s been great too.
“A year ago, me and Michael were talking to each other and we believed we should have been in the Premier League. That 12 months has done us the world of good, and now look at us – we’re flying!
“I’m really proud of Michael because he’s a class player and he deserves to be in the Premier League, and he’s showing why. I’m feeling confident too, and I’ve got the desire inside to be one of the best.”
Smith concedes that his confidence is growing week-on-week during his strong start to the season, which has been accompanied by a ProTour victory earlier in February.
“I’m taking my chances at the moment but I still don’t think I’m at my best – when my A-game kicks in I think I can destroy people on the board,” said the former World Youth Champion.
“My family life’s good, I can’t argue about my darts and I’m winning matches. Last time I was in the Premier League it took me five weeks to get a point and now I’ve had a great start.
“I’m aiming to stay in the top four and I’m want to win this. I want to go unbeaten, and now I believe in myself that I’m one of the best players in the world.”
World number one Van Gerwen takes on World Grand Prix champion Daryl Gurney in another eagerly-awaited contest at the Mercedes-Benz Arena.
The Dutchman averaged 110 in victory over Gary Anderson last week before winning both Players Championship events held in Barnsley over the weekend, and Van Gerwen is in confident mood travelling to Berlin.
“The last week has been brilliant and the win over Gary was great, but I have to make sure I prepare for Daryl now,” said Van Gerwen. “I didn’t have a good couple of weeks but I’m feeling good now.
“I’ve had Rob Cross, Peter Wright and Gary Anderson and four points is not too bad but I want to be top of the table and I’m not, so that gives me something to chase.”
Gurney is still chasing the first win of his debut Premier League season, and after twice allowing a lead to slip in taking a pair of draws the reigning World Grand Prix champion is looking to recapture his killer instinct this week.
“I still haven’t played my best yet,” said Gurney. “In my own opinion, I haven’t been that good.
“I’ve got to cut out the mediocre stuff, play proper darts – the way I have been practising. I’m putting myself in a good position but I need to keep my foot on the gas.
“The way I’ve played in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been steady enough, playing okay but I can play so much better.”
World Champion Rob Cross picked up his first win of the season in Newcastle last week, and is aiming to continue his return to form against 2014 Premier League champion Raymond van Barneveld in Berlin.
“It doesn’t matter how you’re playing as long as you’re winning and it was good to get the win last week,” said Cross. “I’m starting to get back to my old self now.
“I’m adamant that after winning the World Championship, if we’d had a competition the following weekend I’d have kept that momentum going, but when you’ve got that four-week gap it’s damaged me.
“I was like starting again and I’ve never experienced that before. The Premier League’s still new for me but I’m getting back into my routine, playing more and my practice is going well, and I’ll get better.
“It’s probably as crucial a game for me on Thursday against Raymond as it was last week. It’s going to be massive in Berlin and a new experience, and it’s a privilege to be a part of nights like this.
“I’m excited, I’m ready to play Raymond and I think it will be a good game.”
Van Barneveld is bidding to bounce back from last week’s defeat to Whitlock in Newcastle to claim his second win of the campaign.
“I always feel good in Germany, and it’s going to be a huge crowd in Berlin,” said the Dutch legend. “I’m really focused on playing the World Champion Rob Cross.
“I’ve got three points from the first three weeks but I want to hopefully get a couple more points tomorrow and I’m confident.”
UK Open finalist Gerwyn Price is set to take on Austria’s Mensur Suljovic, with the Welshman having drawn twice so far this season as he aims to claim his first win in Berlin.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Price. “I’ve got to get out of the blocks a bit quicker, but I’ve been enjoying it.
“The last few weeks have been brilliant, especially in Cardiff, but in Berlin it’s going to be immense. I’m up against someone who the Germans will probably support.
“Sometimes when the crowd’s against me it spurs me on. I’ve played against Gary Anderson in Glasgow and I seem to play well against the German players in the European Tour events. It’s going to be exciting.”
Scottish pair Peter Wright and Gary Anderson also face off on Thursday – having previously teamed up in Germany to represent their country in the World Cup of Darts.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” said Wright. “I’ve been a bit up and down but I’ve got three points on the board.
“Gary’s back is a lot better now and the way he played last week against Michael van Gerwen was fantastic. Gary and players like that always bring the best out of me.
“I lost last Thursday and didn’t have a great weekend so I’ve been trying to get some practice in and I’m mentally prepared, so we’ll see how it goes, but it should be a good game.
“I love it out in Germany. The fans are amazing, they make me feel welcome and sing their song to me, and I think because I have crazy hair and the crazy outfits they’ve taken to me. It should be an amazing atmosphere.”
Although 12,000 tickets have been sold for Thursday’s Unibet Premier League in Berlin, a small number of tickets remain on sale through www.pdc-europe.tv.
Unibet Premier League
Night Four – February 22
Mercedes-Benz Arena, Berlin
Michael Smith v Simon Whitlock
Gerwyn Price v Mensur Suljovic
Michael van Gerwen v Daryl Gurney
Rob Cross v Raymond van Barneveld
Peter Wright v Gary Anderson
Tickets via PDC Europe and through Affilitix +49 361 644 189 760 and with email support via email@example.com
Unibet Match Odds – Night Four
23/20 Michael Smith
7/4 Simon Whitlock
33/20 Gerwyn Price
6/5 Mensur Suljovic
11/50 Michael van Gerwen
17/2 Daryl Gurney
4/5 Rob Cross
5/2 Raymond van Barneveld
2/1 Peter Wright
Evens Gary Anderson
Odds courtesy www.unibet.co.uk and correct at time of writing. Subject to fluctuation.
** A NEW RECORD **
Thursday’s crowd of 12,000 fans at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin will be the biggest post-war crowd for a darts event, and a PDC record.
According to darts historian Patrick Chaplin, a crowd of 14,354 fans was recorded in 1939 for the London & The South Divisional final of the News of the World Championship, held at the Royal Agricultural Hall in London.
Photo: Lawrence Lustig/PDC