Tuesday, 10 April 2018

World Championship Qualifiers Preview

It's the best time of year to be a snooker fan and the most important time of year for snooker players - the World Championship Qualifiers.

128 players are battling it out for 16 places to join the 16 best players in the world for the main event at the Crucible on April 21. Starting on Wednesday these players will be three best-of-19 frame matches, and potentially eight days from the sport's biggest stage.

Last year's qualifiers were: Fergal O'Brien, Xiao Guodong, Noppon Saengkham, Luca Brecel, Yan Bingtao, Gary Wilson, Stuart Carrington, Zhou Yuelong, Peter Ebdon, David Grace, Jimmy Robertson, Martin Gould, Tom Ford, Graeme Dott, Stephen Maguire and Rory McLeod.

Of these, Luca Brecel is now seeded, while Mark Williams is now back in the top 16 having failed to qualify last year. What that means is that Ryan Day and Liang Wenbo who were both seeded last year are among those requiring three wins to qualify for the Crucible.

On top of this, there is the ongoing battle for tour survival with players looking to end the season ranked inside of the top 64, unless they are only one season into a two year card. For these players that fail to finish 64 or above in the rankings there is a second chance. For the best eight players on the ranking list for this season, that have not already guaranteed a place on tour for next season, there are eight two year tour cards up for grabs. 

Qualifying Section 1 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Ryan Day Vs Igor Figueiredo 
Mitchell Mann Vs Peter Lines
Robbie Williams Vs Jak Jones
Peter Ebdon Vs James Wattana

This first section in all honesty is all about Ryan Day. The Welshman has bagged three titles this season at the Riga Masters, Gibraltar Open and the invitational in Romania so he's in very good form and very unfortunate to be in these qualifiers. On the flip side, he should be incredibly confident of getting through but could still find plenty of trouble with some of the experienced names in this section. His first round opponent Igor Figueiredo is here as an invitee as the WSF Seniors champion. We know what the Brazilian is capable of and he could cause Day problems, but in all likelihood he will prove too strong.

Former world champion Peter Ebdon is another highlight in this section, as is his first round encounter with James Wattana. The Thai himself showed in the Welsh Open that he is still capable of pulling off results with a couple of wins there, after making the English Open last 16 earlier this season though. Ebdon though is no stranger to these qualifiers and coming through them. He qualified narrowly last year against Michael Holt and was also at the Crucible in 2016 after a two year absence prior to that.

Robbie Williams could also prove dangerous. Last season, when he lost in the second qualifying round very narrowly against Yu De Lu, was the first time he had not been at the Crucible since 2013 after three successive appearances. He has had a decent season that was highlighted largely by making the International Championship quarter-finals. His first round opponent Jak Jones is in need of victories though. Jones is presently outside of the top 64 and the final man currently in line for one of the eight two your cards by the one season list. In all probability a defeat here for the Welshman will see him have to go to Q School.

Finally, Peter Lines and Mitchell Mann is a very even contest. Mann has qualified before but this season has been a quiet one for him since making the Paul Hunter Classic semi-finals in August. Despite that run, Lines is still ahead of him on the one-season list and that is quite telling. For me, the experience of Lines could be the crucial factor, but it will take much more for him and the other players in this section to stop Day. 

Predicted Qualifier: Ryan Day

Qualifying Section 2

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Zhou Yuelong Vs Ian Preece
Daniel Wells Vs Kurt Dunham 
Tom Ford Vs Leo Fernandez
Liam Highfield Vs Chen Zhe

This second section is probably one of the tightest ones for me. A very strong case could made for three of these players qualifying. Starting with Tom Ford, he has recently missed out on the China Open semi-finals by a deciding frame against Barry Hawkins. That may play a part as players that have done well in China in the last couple of years, have then struggled in the qualifying with the short turnaround. However, he should not have too many problems against Leo Fernandez who has only managed the one victory since returning to the tour from suspension midway through the season. Ford was a qualifier last season against a in-form Hossein Vafei, and given the form he is in at the moment he will be tough to stop.

For Daniel Wells, his immediate attention will be on tour survival. He is 62nd on the end of season rankings but not far enough clear with £9,000 on the table for first round winners. If he were to drop out of the 64 he would be in line for one of the eight tour cards on the one-season list but this would all depend on other results. You would not think that he would have too many problems against Kurt Dunham, though the Austrlian did show strong signs of improvement when he overcame Ryan Day on TV at the Welsh Open just over a month ago. Last year's qualifiers were a bit of a write off though for Dunham as he fell 10-1 in round one to Alan McManus.

Liam Highfield is also in the tour survival shake up. However, he is further clear the Daniel Wells and in a much better position on the one-season list if he were to lose to Chen Zhe and potentially drop out of the 64. Readers of the blog will know that the Highfield is a player I have followed more closely this season and he has improved massively in my view. He certainly has potential to be one of those players who comes from the pack to make his Crucible debut such is his quality and the high opinion I hold of him.

My pick to qualify though is Zhou Yuelong. Zhou has perhaps not been as impressive this season as he was last when he qualified before losing on his Crucible debut to Ding Junhui. He has shown good signs in the last couple of weeks though making the China Open last 16 and the final of the Championship League in a difficult Winners Group. I can't see him having any problems with Ian Preece in round one as long as the Chinese youngster is in good touch and from there you have to say a final round showdown with Ford or Highfield would be the likely outcome. The heavy scoring that Zhou possesses is a strong asset and one that can help him take sessions away from players over a long format or rattle frames off quickly if he has to come from behind. It is a very tight section but Zhou may just be the one to edge it.

Predicted Qualifier: Zhou Yuelong

Qualifying Section 3 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Matthew Selt Vs Ng On Yee
Mark Joyce Vs Adam Duffy
Mei Xiwen Vs Basem Eltahhan 
Xiao Guodong Vs Chris Totten

In this section we have one of the players that I picked out before the draw was even made. Xiao Guodong has had a very strong season and is 23rd on this season's money list after impressive runs throughout the season. Not only did he qualify last year but he then dispatched of Ryan Day quite comfortably before losing in the last 16 to Mark Selby. In round one here he should not have too many problems against Chris Totten over a 19 frame affair and his heavy scoring would take care of many players in these qualifiers.

Mei Xiwen is not someone you would fancy against Xiao but he is more than good enough to take care of Basem Eltahhan comfortably and he needs to in order to boost his tour survival chances. He is currently outside of the top 64 on the end of season list and sixth on the one year list of those not already qualified for next year, so a win is certainly needed for him if he is to be on the main tour next year.

Matthew Selt has showed signs of getting back to the form that saw him qualify for the Crucible in 2015 and come up just short in round one there against Barry Hawkins, but is still only 50th on the one season money list. In Women's World champion Ng On Yee he faces someone in round one that has nothing to lose and we saw with Reanne Evans last year that this can be very dangerous for the seed. Selt is not one of the main contenders to qualify here in my view unless he finds some form.

Mark Joyce could be a contender though. His performance in getting to the UK Championship quarter-finals should be enough to make people sit up and take notice of him as far as these qualifiers are concerned. Somewhat surprisingly, he has never actually qualified for the Crucible but with the form he has shown this year and the confidence that must give him, this may be his best chance. His first round opponent Adam Duffy is in no form whatsoever and looks set to drop off tour, unless he qualifies for the Crucible himself at the very least. Joyce is probably the strongest opposition to Xiao in this section but I still fancy the Chinese player strongly to qualify.

Predicted Qualifier: Xiao Guodong

Qualifying Section 4 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Stuart Carrington Vs Nigel Bond 
Ben Woollaston Vs Kacper Filipiak
Zhang Anda Vs Zhang Yong
Martin Gould Vs Paul Davison

Again there is one man in this section who is going to prove very difficult to stop. Martin Gould qualified last year and was seeded back in 2016. 2015 was the only year in the last nine where Gould was not at the Crucible either as a seed or a qualifier so he has experience in abundance and is a firm favourite to get back there again. It has been a decent season for Gould that has included a semi-final over the slightly longer best-of-11 format in the International Championship as well as a last 16 recently at the Welsh Open that included three wins against strong opposition.

Stuart Carrington has some experience of qualifying for the Crucible now having made his debut in 2015 and making it through again last year before falling to Liang Wenbo very narrowly after impressing early in the contest. You would certainly make him a dark horse to here qualify here but his performances this season do not back that up. He is in fact 74th on this season's money list, so way off of his normal pace. His first round opponent Nigel Bond could well cause him some big problems. Bond has experience in abundance and has still outperformed a number of the players that started this season with a fresh two year tour card, which is not bad for someone is supposedly winding down in his career.

Ben Woollaston is someone on paper that should be the strongest challenger to Gould in this section though he has not qualified for the Crucible since making his debut in 2013. Last year he came within a single frame, losing out to Zhou Yuelong in a decider and it could be just as close this year. Overall, he has had a steady season and is certainly about time that he made his second Crucible appearance in my opinion.

Finally, Zhang Anda is someone who is under immense pressure this week. Outside of the top 64 on the end of season and not in the top 8 not already qualified for next season, he has to beat Zhang Yong in round one to have any chance of avoiding a trip to Q School. Yong has actually outperformed Anda in terms of money earned, despite the fact that Anda was a quarter-finalist in India in September. However, he does have pedigree in this format though having qualified for the Crucible in 2010, 2015 and 2016 even if the form guide suggests his chances are slim. If he could get beyond that nervy opening round and boost his tour survival hopes, that could be the springboard that sees him come from the pack to come all the way through these qualifiers once more. 

Predicted Qualifier: Martin Gould 

Qualifying Section 5 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Graeme Dott Vs Adrian Ridley 
Akani Songsermsawad Vs Lukas Kleckers
Dominic Dale Vs Reanne Evans
Mike Dunn Vs Duane Jones

Much like with Xiao Guodong in section three, Graeme Dott was one of the players that I earmarked prior to the draw as someone who I fully expected to qualify. The fact that he was a finalist in the German Masters earlier on this season really helps to back up that call. He qualified last year as well and then went on to beat Ali Carter in the last 32 when the main tournament began. His reputation in the World Championships speaks for itself as Dott is not only a former champion but also twice a runner-up on top of that. He should not have any problems in round one and his greatest opposition may well come in the second qualifying round.

Akani Songsermsawad is the man he is likely to face in that second qualifier and he has been one of the rising stars of the last year. In making the last 16 of the UK Championships he demonstrated what he is capable of and his style could easily wear opponents down over the long format. However, Dott is someone who is unlikely to fall into these traps and Akani will have to be at his very best if he is to come through this qualifying section.

Dominic Dale last qualified for the Crucible when he went on to make the quarter-finals back in 2014. The Welshman has a world of experience and will be eager for a Crucible return after narrowly missing out on the one-table set-up four years ago. In round one he faces someone who could be very dangerous though, and certainly proved to be last year. Reanne Evans defeated Robin Hull in he first round of qualifying 12 months ago, and with no pressure on Evans can go out and enjoy the occasion, freeing her up to potentially play at her best. It has been a quiet season for Dale though and unless he finds some form it is difficult to see him coming through this section.

Mike Dunn and Duane Jones presents an interesting clash. Jones played well in the China Open last week to overcome Liang Wenbo and was close to a last 32 victory against Luo Honghao. Dunn meanwhile can never be underestimated, though amazingly he last qualified for the Crucible back in 2002 so it will take a lot for him mentally to overcome this 16 year hoodoo. This is certainly one of the tightest looking matches in the section and whoever comes through could certainly have a run to the final qualifying match but in the end I think Dott will prove too strong in this section. 

Predicted Qualifier: Graeme Dott

Qualifying Section 6 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Michael Holt Vs Thor Chuan Leong 
Elliot Slessor Vs Eden Sharav
Robert Milkins Vs Aaron Canavan
Scott Donaldson Vs Tyler Rees

Section six looks like one of the most even sections and one of the toughest to pick an overall qualifier from. Robert Milkins has qualified three times in the last five years prior to this and should have no problems in round one dispatching a relative unknown in the World Seniors Champion Aaron Canavan. If Milkins is scoring well then he will be a tough man to beat, but if he is slightly off his game than the frustrations could grow, and this is when he would be most vulnerable.

Michael Holt is the highest seed in this section but his form right now does not make him a clear favourite at all. Last year he missed out narrowly on qualifying losing out in the final round to Peter Ebdon, but his form this season has not matched that of the previous two years in which he was making good progress it seemed. One of the toughest matches for Holt would come in round two. Elliot Slessor has been in good form this season and would be tough to beat, while if Eden Sharav could come through it is common knowledge now of the bad blood they share.

Slessor though is a more than worthy favourite against Sharav. This time last year this would have looked a much more even game on paper, but Sharav has not had the best of seasons and failed to make much progress up the rankings. Slessor on the other hand has defeated Ronnie O'Sullivan twice this season and made it to a maiden ranking semi-final. Given his performance in Beijing last week he should be full of confidence and there is not one player in this section that he should really fear. Slessor therefore, is certainly a good bet to make it through and be one of this year's debutants.

Don't rule out Scott Donaldson either though. His game is one that should be more suited to the longer format, as he showed by defeating Mark Selby in the last 64 of the UK Championships earlier this season. However, he did have a very slow start to the year and, even though he has improved since, it may well have harmed his confidence and I think Milkins will give him a very tough time in round two. 

Predicted Qualifier: Elliot Slessor

Qualifying Section 7 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Rory McLeod Vs Ian Burns 
Li Hang Vs Ashley Hugill
Lu Haotian Vs Fang Xiongman
Anthony Hamilton Vs Martin O'Donnell 

Of the players in this section, Rory McLeod was the only one to qualify last year and then went on to defeat Judd Trump at the Crucible in dramatic fashion. McLeod is one of those players who can certainly drive you mad over a long format and there are a few players on the circuit who would certainly agree with that. I have to say I was a little shocked therefore to see Ian Burns as a favourite to beat him in round one. McLeod may not have shined brightly this season but he has still earned £500 more than Burns. The only run of any note for Burns came in Wales when he made the quarter-finals, while he also made the quarters in Furth in August, though there were a number of early exits in between. Over the long format though, I see nothing worth warning people against picking out McLeod to beat Burns in round one given the odds on offer.

Li Hang is the favourite to come through in this section but his form in recent times does not present much reason for him to be. He has not done a whole lot since making the UK Championship last 16, with early exits and a withdrawal from the Welsh Open since then, whilst also failing to qualify for the big money China Open. If he were to make it through it would be a Crucible debut for the heavy scoring Li having missed out in the final round against Maguire last year. In round one he faces a tough test against Ashley Hugill who has a good outside chance of causing an upset here as a player I rated very highly when he earned his tour card. Hugill has had a few good results this season and is more than capable of taking care of Li here.

Anthony Hamilton and Martin O'Donnell is another tight match to call. Hamilton has suffered this season with back injuries that have really hindered his progress. He is the top 32 seed in this section but though on the one year money list he comes in at 86. On top of that it is 10 years since he last qualified for the Crucible which is a very long gap for someone of his quality and experience. As for O'Donnell I always think that he is a very solid player and has had some very good results this season. He defeated Luca Brecel recently in Gibraltar before losing in the last 32 to eventual champion Ryan Day as well as making the International Championship last 16 earlier in the campaign. O'Donnell is not only a good bet against Hamilton but someone who could easily go on and qualify.

My choice here though is the ever impressive Lu Haotian. The way he has fought back to get on the tour and then progress as quickly as he has is admirable. He featured in the semi-finals in Northern Ireland this season and the last 16 of last week's China Open as well as the UK Championship last 16 so he has performed very well in the big events. His heavy scoring makes him incredibly dangerous, and while he may not have as much experience as others in this section, the quality he brings to the table more than makes up for it.

Predicted Qualifier: Lu Haotian

Qualifying Section 8 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Matthew Stevens Vs Ryan Thomerson 
Fergal O'Brien Vs Yuan Sijun
Ken Doherty Vs Josh Boileau
Mark King Vs Gerard Greene 

Matthew Stevens is one of the favourites to come out of this section and qualify this year. Given his World Championship pedigree that is hardly a surprise and he also has a first round draw that is not likely to cause him too many issues. However, as the years go on Stevens is becoming more and more hit and miss and while he has had some good runs this season there have also been some heavy and disappointing losses including a first round exit at the UK Championships. This section is such a tough one and full of experience so it is very tough and go as to whether Stevens will qualify.

After a full final frame deciders in previous years, Fergal O'Brien finally came through last year against David Gilbert to qualify and is someone who can never be ruled out over this length of match. His sheer determination and desire is the reason he qualified last year and his experience and class will be too much for young Yuan Sijun if the rookie is anything short of his absolute best. O'Brien does have a little bit of form coming in having beaten Stephen Maguire in the last 64 in the China Open last week. It is a very tight call however as to who would make the final qualifier out of Stevens and O'Brien.

Ken Doherty is someone who I think can seize on the fact that there is no pressure on him this year now that he is on an invitational tour card. Right from the off this season he has played better, making the semi-finals in the Riga Masters and he has strategically not played in every event in order to be fresh and ready when it counts. His first round opponent Josh Boileau has very slim hopes of tour survival and I expect these hopes to be extinguished quickly by Doherty here.

Mark King is the highest seed in this section but again given the experienced opposition he would have to play in every single round, he is by no means a clear and heavy favourite. His first round opponent Gerard Greene showed what he was capable of in the Welsh Open when he impressively defeated Shaun Murphy 4-0. Despite falling off the tour a couple of years ago, Greene has fought back strongly and will be a good match here for King. All in all this a tough section to call, but prior to the draw Ken Doherty is one of the players I picked out as having a good outside chance of qualifying. 

Predicted Qualifier: Ken Doherty 

Qualifying Section 9 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Liang Wenbo Vs Rod Lawler  
Zhao Xintong Vs Aditya Mehta
Yu De Lu Vs Sean O'Sullivan
Jamie Jones Vs Craig Steadman

Despite his poor season that has left him outside of the top 32 on the one year money list, Liang Wenbo for me is still a very hot favourite to qualify looking at the players in this section. Last year he was seeded but he did come through the qualifiers in 2016 having only just missed out on automatic qualification, so that bodes well for the Chinese number two. His first round opponent Rod Lawler has really been out of sorts this season and if his poor form continues he could fall quite heavily here against Liang.

Zhao Xintong at his very best would be a contender to knock Liang out but in Aditya Mehta he has a very tricky first round tie. Zhao has to win this match to have any chance of avoiding Q School and while one win would add £9,000 to his ranking total, he may need two wins to earn a new tour year tour card via the one year list, depending on other results. Mehta is one of the players currently in those top eight spots on the one year list so he too needs a victory and I think he has the type of game that will really not suit Zhao. Mehta will not give Zhao an inch and hope to grind the young man down, and you would have India's number one as the hot favourite to win the tactical frames of this contest.

Yu De Lu is one of the bigger challenges that Liang will face in this section, if they meet in the final round. Yu always seems to go a little under the radar, though one thing that stands against him is the fact he has never qualified for the Crucible before. Sean O'Sullivan his first round opponent has had a similar season to Lawler in terms of his struggles and position on the money list, and will really need to up his game to defeat Yu and have any chance of qualifying. Recent form stands nicely in Yu's favour having made the quarter-finals of the Welsh Open followed by the last 16 in Gibraltar.

Jamie Jones and Craig Steadman for me is another tight match up. Steadman has qualified for the Crucible in recent years and needs a couple of wins in qualifying to avoid going to Q School at the end of the season. He was unlucky in the China Open to lose in the last 64 to Ding Junhui after making two centuries and he also had a couple of wins recently in the Welsh Open. Jones meanwhile has had a fairly quiet season by his standards, especially since making the Paul Hunter Classic semi-finals in August. He has shown in the past that he is more than capable of qualifying, but his recent form does not back that up really and Steadman could be able to take advantage.

Predicted Qualifier: Liang Wenbo 

Qualifying Section 10 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Jack Lisowski Vs Chris Keogan 
David Grace Vs Wang Yuchen
Alan McManus Vs Rhys Clark
Oliver Lines Vs Harvey Chandler

With the three other seeded players all involved in the tour survival battle and under huge pressure over the next week, the in-form and ever improving Jack Lisowski is a huge favourite to qualify. Lisowski comes into this off the back of another quarter-final at the China Open which follows his Shanghai Masters semi-final and English Open quarter-final earlier this season, results that have him in the top 20 on this season's money list. He may have only qualified for the Crucible once back in 2013, but he is more than capable of breezing through this section in a similar way to what he has done in the early stages of many tournaments this season. For me, this will be the year for his long awaited Crucible return.

David Grace needs at least one win in these qualifiers in order to stay on the tour and he faces a tricky task against Wang Yuchen to do that. Those that watched Wang's heldover match against Mark Selby in the China Open would have seen that he was in good touch, and with his chances of tour survival much slimmer there is almost less pressure in Wang as the hopes and expectations will be lower than those of Grace. The big Yorkshireman did collect the three wins needed for his Crucible debut last year so the former UK Championship semi-finalist knows he can get the job done.

Also under a little bit of pressure is Oliver Lines. He faces European Amateur champion Harvey Chandler in round one with his place on tour next season far from secure. Defeat to Chandler would leave him likely to finish the season outside of the top 64 and dependant on other results, he would not be secure of a new two year card via the one-year list either. The one thing that does play into Lines hands is the fact he has the experience of playing on the tour and the match tables where Chandler may not, though Chandler will be on tour next season and he can play freely with nothing on the line here.

Alan McManus is also under huge pressure. With his World Championship semi-final money from tour years ago coming off, he is the man on the bubble at 64th on the provisional end of season money list and, like so many others, he is going to need at least one win here this week. If he were to slip out of the 64 he would be practically assured of a two year card via the one-year list, but for someone that has been on the tour as long as McManus, starting again next season with £0 on his ranking would be very undesirable. The one thing McManus has though is a wealth of experience and a first round opponent who is totally out of form, and he can be expected too boss Rhys Clark in round one. From there, he is most likely to be the biggest challenger to Lisowski and his experience and tactical prowess could hurt the left-hander if they were to meet in the final round. However, on pure form and with how much confidence he should have, Lisowski has to be the pick here. 

Predicted Qualifier: Jack Lisowski 

Qualifying Section 11 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Andrew Higginson Vs David John 
Cao Yupeng Vs Robin Hull 
Lee Walker Vs Kristjan Helgason 
Ricky Walden Vs Joe Swail

One player in this section is someone I had been eyeing up before the draw came out. Cao Yupeng has out performed everyone in this section by a mile this season rising from way back in the rankings at the start of the campaign, to make the Scottish and Gibraltar Open finals. The only one issue he may have in his three matches is getting over the line. Two or three times this season, including the Scottish Open final and recent China Open last 16 exit, he has lost matches from quite a long way in front. On the whole, he has been very consistent all season and played very well to get inside the top 20 on the one season list and he is certainly the front runner for qualification in my eyes. His first round opponent Robin Hull is no stranger to World Championship qualification, coming through in both 2014 and 2015, while his 2014 season was very similar to this season in the build up. In recent months Hull has missed events due to a virus, but if he is 100% and healthy to play here then he will certainly keep Cao honest.

2013 World Championship semi-finalist Ricky Walden may have something to say about that. Walden would play Cao in the final round if he gets that far and I would expect him to do just that. His first round opponent Joe Swail has missed events this season for personal reasons, but he is more than capable of beating Walden on his comeback here. Walden did exit in round one least season to Hammad Miah, but he was troubled greatly by his back it seems, something that looks to have settled down a great deal over the course of the season. Walden is still good enough to break back into the top 16 in my view and he will certainly hope to show that in these qualifiers.

Andrew Higginson is somewhat of a dark horse. On his day he still seems capable of beating most players in these qualifiers this week, but on his bad days he could just as easily lose to anyone in these qualifiers. His performances this season are good enough to have him at joint 59th on the one season money list, a far cry from a player that was closing in on the top 16 when he last played at the Crucible in 2012. In David John though, he has a first round opponent who has not made much headway on the professional circuit and will have to head to Q School in May if he wants another go.

Lee Walker is the outsider of the four seeds in this section. He is under pressure in round one as he needs to defeat Kristjan Helgason to secure his place on tour for next season, via a fresh two year tour card on the one year money list. Of the eight spots available, his performances this season are currently good enough to have him in 6th (69th on the one-year money list overall) so he is by no means safe if his Icelandic opponent causes an upset. Helgason is in the qualifiers as an amateur invite after making the semi-finals of the World Snooker Federation Championship, and he was so close to making the final and a match that could have earned him a tour card. In the event he was one of the heaviest scorers, making a total of five centuries in the 27 frames he won in the event (two of which came in a group game against Ryan Thomerson) and if he can find some of that scoring he will make Walker work hard. 

Predicted Qualifier: Cao Yupeng

Qualifying Section 12 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Michael Georgiou Vs Matthew Bolton
Mark Davis Vs Sanderson Lam
Sam Craigie Vs Jimmy White
Joe Perry Vs Ross Muir

On paper, section 12 is one that is headlined by Joe Perry and he will be among most peoples picks to qualify. However, last season he did not make it through the qualifiers and has not done enough since to forge a challenge for a top 16 return. He probably will not have many problems in round one though Ross Muir can be dangerous on his day, but the big hurdles will follow in rounds two and three if Perry makes it that far.

Sam Craigie and Jimmy White will be a very entertaining game and one where a lot of high breaks can be expected. Craigie impressed last week by beating Martin Gould in Beijing with four centuries and then leading Neil Robertson 4-1 in the last 32 before just falling 6-5. Last year, Craigie actually led Yan Bingtao 8-4 at one stage in the qualifying round before Yan turned it around and went on to qualify for the Crucible. Craigie's performances in round one here could lay down a big marker and if he sees off White with ease then that could be a sign that he is ready to kick on and make his Crucible debut. Defeat to the Whirlwind, who certainly still has the ability to put some wins together in this qualifying campaign himself, would leave Craigie slightly vulnerable to falling off tour. He is second out of the eight players currently in position to gain a new two year tour card via the one year money list, and it would take a number of results to go against him for things to go wrong.

Mark Davis is certainly someone in this section who is not to be underestimated. He has not appeared at the Crucible since 2015, though that was his fourth year in a row in the final stages of the World Championship, and it is not so long ago that he was a seed himself. Those days may be gone and his provisional end of season ranking is 41, but the quality is still there and he is more than good enough to get through a round or two again here.

My choice though is Michael Georgiou. Winning the Shoot Out has played a big part in his successes this season but along with that should come a lot of confidence. That victory and qualification for the World Grand Prix, where he made the last 16, were more than enough to secure his tour place for next season - and that was in some doubt prior to the Shoot-Out. Since that victory he looks to be playing with a new found confidence and belief. People may say a lot of things about the event itself, but one thing that cannot be disputed is the amount of bottle it takes to win it under such intense pressure, and the knowledge that he can handle that will serve Georgiou well in these qualifiers. In Matthew Bolton he has a first round opponent who has not found his feet on the professional tour, so he should get through without much bother and from there he is certainly my one to watch in this section. 

Predicted Qualifier: Michael Georgiou 

Qualifying Section 13 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Yan Bingtao Vs Jackson Page 
Tian Pengfei Vs Li Yuan
Kurt Maflin Vs Hamza Akbar
Chris Wakelin Vs Xu Si

In this section there is one clear runaway favourite but also plenty of players that could trouble that player. Yan Bingtao is the man many will expect to win three matches with ease and secure back-to-back Crucible appearances, but that is still no easy feat. His rise has been phenomenal and since this time last year he has continued his incredible progression by reaching his first ranking final, just 18 months after joining the professional tour. He is now an established member of the top 32 and will certainly not be far away from being a top 16 seed at next year's Championships. In round one he will need to be on guard as he faces another dangerous young talent in Jackson Page. This tie is one that lights up the draw and if Page is in good form he will certainly challenge Yan. Page has nothing to lose and despite his age has already shown enough to suggest he could go far once he earns a professional tour card. What this does provide is a test that if Yan does come through, he will be full of confidence for the matches that follow.

Tian Pengfei is his most likely second round opponent and his second half to the season has tailed off dramatically. At one point it looked like he would stay on tour easily, but he is still going to need to win his first round encounter with Li Yuan to guarantee one of the eight tour cards on offer via the one year list. As for his qualification chances, it is tough to see him stopping someone like Yan Bingtao and as someone who is yet to make the Crucible, you would not fancy him to change that here.

Chris Wakelin has done enough to be nicely secured of his tour berth for next season, but he does face a tough first round match here against Xu Si. Xu has been very hit and miss this season and it will be interesting to see how he performs over the best-of-19 frames. His performances in all are enough to have him 71st on the one season money list which is a good effort and he has been unlucky losing a few deciders this season. His highlight by far will have been making the semi-finals of the Indian Open as well as the last 16 of the Scottish Open. His defeat of Mark Davis in the UK Championships showed that he is more than capable of beating these established players and I think he has a good chance of victory against Wakelin, though Wakelin himself was a 6-0 winner in the China Open recently against an injured Shaun Murphy.

Kurt Maflin is probably the greatest challenger to Yan Bingtao in this section and if the pair meet in the final round it will be a very entertaining encounter. They met recently in the China Open with Yan coming from behind to win 6-5. A quarter-final in Shanghai is his highlight of a season that has been good enough to get him to 41st on the one season money list. 2015 was the year that the big Norwegian showed his capabilities in the World Championship, making his Crucible debut before pushing Mark Selby all the way in the last 32. Overall, it is still going to be very difficult to back against Yan Bingtao here with much success. 

Predicted Qualifier: Yan Bingtao 

Qualifying Section 14 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

David Gilbert Vs Billy Castle 
Alfie Burden Vs Jamie Barrett 
Gary Wilson Vs Adam Stefanow
Thepchaiya Un-Nooh Vs Alexander Ursenbacher

A couple of players in this section are under pressure for their tour place. The first is Thepchaiya Un-Nooh who could end up in trouble if he lost in round one here to Alexander Ursenbacher. Quite a few other results would have to go against him for that to happen but that pressure may feed into his game and give Ursenbacher a good chance. Last year he got to the third qualifying round despite not actually being back on tour until the start of this season. Since then, he has had a semi-final at the English Open, but has not quite kicked on since then. This is sure to be a high scoring and attacking game, and Un-Nooh's inconsistencies along with the pressure involved could leave him open to an upset here.

Alfie Burden is the other player here fighting for his tour place. At 73rd on the provisional end of season money list he is well off the pace, and at 81st on this season's money list he is currently £1,000 behind Jak Jones who holds the last of the eight "not already qualified for next year" spots as it stands. Victory in round one against Jamie Barrett is therefore a must for Burden, and he may even need to make the final qualifier to stay on tour. While Barrett has had the odd result, Burden should fancy his chances of getting into the second round but from there he may just come up short. For a player of his quality, it is hard to believe it has been 20 years since his only Crucible appearance, and the longer that goes on the more unlikely that is to change.

In terms of the seedings, David Gilbert is the front runner in this section for qualification and he will be a man on a mission after the heartbreak of 12 months ago. For those with a good memory, Gilbert was the player who lost the two hour decider in the final qualifying round against Fergal O'Brien which would have taken him a while to get over you imagine. There have not been too many highlights for him in the second half of the season, though his performances across the campaign still have him in the top 25 on this season's money list. On top of that there is a trend forming with Gilbert and qualifying in even numbered years after making it to the Crucible in 2012, 2014 and 2016 and there is no reason why he cannot keep that going.

One of the men that I think will stand strongly in Gilbert's way though is Gary Wilson. Having qualified last year to make his debut, he held his own against Ronnie O'Sullivan and I think he took a lot of confidence from the experience. This season he has appeared in the semi-finals of the Welsh Open as well as making the last 16 of the China Open last week with wins over Ali Carter and Joe Perry. His heavy scoring is his greatest asset over this long format and given his form, he should have the confidence and bottle to be able to qualify for a second season in succession. 

Predicted Qualifier: Gary Wilson

Qualifying Section 15 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Sam Baird Vs Soheil Vahedi 
Jimmy Robertson Vs Alex Borg
John Astley Vs Marvin Lim
Michael White Vs Niu Zhuang

Like in the previous section, section 15 has two more players who are in precarious positions in the ranking list. Sam Baird is the first of those after a horrible season that he has endured. Baird is certainly not someone you thought would be in the position that he is right now. At 74th on the provisional end of season money list he would have to qualify for the Crucible at the very least in order to make it into the top 64. Even to get a fresh two year card via the one year money list he is going to have to win at least one game, but more than likely two in these qualifiers. One thing in his favour is that he has qualified for the Crucible twice before, debuting in 2013 before making the last 16 in 2016. Although, when I have seen him this year he has looked very low on confidence and a long way short of that 2016 performance. In Soheil Vahedi, Baird faces a player who players a very aggressive game which will give Baird plenty of chances, though if Soheil is on form he will be a tough man to get past and the closer the match becomes the more the pressure will heap on to Baird's shoulders.

John Astley though has a much more realistic tour survival chance. His match with invitee Marvin Lim is one that could well shift him from 65th on the provisional end of season money to a position well inside the top 64 depending on other results. If those other results do go against him, victory against Lim should still be more than enough to secure him a fresh two year tour card via the one season money list. From there, Astley should be able to focus on trying to make his World Championship debut at the Crucible, something that would be quite special for someone who has previously performed at the Crucible in a play where his character was... a snooker player.

In terms of rankings, Michael White is the front runner in this section and someone that made the quarter-finals on his Crucible debut back in 2013 as well as qualifying again in 2014 and 2016. Despite his form not always being consistent he has still had a very good season that included victory very early on in August's Paul Hunter Classic. White's scoring always makes him a dangerous player and he is certainly a huge threat who I can only see being stopped by one man in this section.

That is someone in the best season of their career in Jimmy Robertson. Robertson was a quarter-finalist earlier in the year at the German Masters and he has played pretty consistently all season long to go along with that and put him at 33rd on this season's money list. Robertson is also no stranger to qualifying for the Crucible having done so three times and twice in the last three years overall. His heavy scoring is certainly a match for White and something that will give him a good advantage against some of the other players in this section as well. His first round tie against Alex Borg is not one I see him having too much trouble with and he should also be too strong for Baird or Soheil in round two, before a thrilling contest with White in round three could await. 

Predicted Qualifier: Jimmy Robertson

Qualifying Section 16 

First Round Draw: (Picks in bold) 

Noppon Saengkham Vs Chen Zifan  
Hossein Vafei Vs Jamie Cope
Hammad Miah Vs Jordan Brown
Stephen Maguire Vs Allan Taylor

The final qualifying section is all about former Crucible semi-finalist Stephen Maguire. You would think that he is far too good to be in these qualifiers but here he is for the second successive year. Last year, he came through the three rounds quite easily and then used that as a springboard to making the quarter-finals with victories over Anthony McGill and Rory McLeod once the main event began. The one worry you would have about Maguire is that he has had chances in the latter stages of events this season to get victories that would have seen him return to the top 16 but he has just fell short when it mattered. Along with that, in the last four years he was seeded at the Crucible from 2013-2016 he lost in the first round four years in succession which is far from impressive. On the other hand, looking at his draw I cannot see him having too many problems in the first two rounds and if he can get through those comfortably he should still be fresh for one the real test will come in the final qualifier.

Hammad Miah will have all eyes on tour survival as he starts out his qualifying campaign. At 79th on the provisional end of season ranking list his only hope realistically is via the one year list and the top eight not already qualified. Even on that list, the likelihood is that he would need to make the final qualifying round to have any chance of getting a fresh two year tour card without going to Q School. Defeating Luca Brecel and Zhao Xintong to qualify for the German Masters is about as good as it has got for Miah this season, so he is certainly up against this week.

Hossein Vafei is a name that many will have earmarked after he lost narrowly in the final qualifying round last year against Tom Ford. However, he has had a quiet second half to this season. In fact, with non entries and visa issues he has only played one match in 2018, a first round exit at the Welsh Open. Despite that, he is still 48th on the one season money list such as his quality and the strength he showed in the first half of the season making the English Open quarter-finals and UK Championships last 32. In the first round he has a very tough match against Jamie Cope. Cope may no longer be on the tour but he was invited here as the leader of the EBSA order of merit, and on the final day of qualifying he will be in action in the EBSA play-offs as the front runner for one of two tour cards. Cope played both the Paul Hunter Classic and the Gibraltar Open, coming through amateur qualifying and eventually making the last 32 of both events with wins against tour players and I think he has a good chance of victory against Hossein here.

That leaves Noppon Saengkham, the Welsh Open semi-finalist as one of the most likely players to challenge Maguire. His run in Cardiff with wins over Kyren Wilson and Judd Trump demonstrated the huge potential that he has teased for a while now. Add to that the fact that Noppon qualified for the Crucible last year beating an in-form Anthony Hamilton 10-9 in the process, and you have someone who should be full of confidence for this year's qualifiers. Still, Stephen Maguire's pedigree still makes him the front runner to qualify from this section. 

Predicted Qualifier: Stephen Maguire

These are the players I believe will make the Crucible but as outlined, every section is competitive and it shapes up as one of the most exciting qualifying campaigns. Plenty of exciting young talent, experienced players and those that have climbed up the rankings with brilliant form this season, makes for plenty of tough battles to come over the next eight days. 

Who do you think will make it through from each section? Feel free to comment below or on my Twitter page @CueActionBlog, and make sure to keep an eye out for my thoughts and all the information you need as the qualifiers progress. 

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