Aspinall aims to make his mark on debut (credit:Lawrence Lustig/PDC)
The leading lights of the PDC get set to illuminate Blackpool as the World Matchplay rolls back into town for nine unmissable days of darting drama.
The 26th staging of the sport’s summer show-piece features one of the strongest fields ever assembled at the Winter Gardens as they compete for a record prize fund and a place in the history books.
The opening round sees the world’s top 16 ranked stars each take on one of the 16 ProTour Order of Merit qualifiers – which include a host of dangerous debutants.
On paper, the line-up of qualifiers appears one of the strongest of the past two decades, with the draw having produced a number of mouth-watering ties to pave the way for another memorable week by the seaside.
Here are our six stand-out selections for the opening round in Blackpool…
Nathan Aspinall win and most 180s @ 6/5
Aspinall’s astonishing rise over the past 12 months is underlined by the fact he is seeded on his World Matchplay debut and a firm contender for a third televised title of the season.
The Asp opened his account at the UK Open in March having started out as a 125/1 outsider, before marking a dream World Series debut by taking the US Masters title in Las Vegas earlier this month.
His incredible run of form stretches back to his Semi-Final appearance at the World Championship, and the Stockport ace is regularly preserving his ‘A’ game for the sport’s biggest stages.
He starts out at the Winter Gardens against seasoned campaigner Mervyn King – a player making his 13th consecutive Matchplay appearance – outlining his consistency on the circuit throughout the season.
King, however, has visibly struggled with the heat on stage in recent months and faces an uphill task over the long format on darts’ most notorious pressure cooker of a stage.
Aspinall has a seasonal average of 96.8 to King’s 92.5 and a marginally higher 180s per leg ratio, and on current form, looks a strong price at odds-against to win and land the most maximums.
Gary Anderson win and most 180s @ 10/11
Anderson returns to Blackpool bidding to become only the fourth player ever to defend this illustrious trophy, having averaged 100.8 for the tournament and come through epic tie break battles against Joe Cullen and Mensur Suljovic to triumph last summer.
No one could have foreseen the turbulent 12 months that would follow for The Flying Scotsman, with injury ruling him out of the Premier League and plaguing his start to the 2019 season.
The 48-year-old, however, has eased himself back in to competition of late, winning the World Cup alongside Peter Wright before suffering early exits in both of this month’s World Series events.
A run to the Semi-Finals of Tuesday’s ProTour event will serve as a timely confidence boost for Anderson – whose opening test comes in the shape of Dutch debutant Danny Noppert.
Barring a run to the Semi-Finals of the 2018 Players Championship Finals, Noppert has failed to surpass the Last 32 stage in five of his six televised tournaments as a PDC player, and this challenge could prove a step too far against a player of Anderson’s class and experience.
Anderson has a 180s per leg ratio of 0.36 in stage matches this season compared to Noppert’s lowly 0.19, and extra value can be found with the most 180s/win double.
Peter Wright -3.5 legs handicap @ EVS
Wright heads to the golden mile as the most in-form player of the pack and will be keen to pick up from where he left off in Barnsley in midweek by safely seeing off Vincent van der Voort.
The world number five followed up last Saturday’s German Masters triumph with back-to-back Players Championship titles, stretching his unbeaten run to 18 matches in all competitions.
His ruthless dominance in midweek was underlined by winning 34 of his last 38 legs and posting six consecutive ton-plus averages on Wednesday.
Many people’s tip for the title at upwards of 10/1, ‘Snakebite’ is understandably strong favourite to dispatch crowd favourite VVDV – who has not won a game at the Matchplay since 2011.
Expect ‘Snakebite’ to stamp his authority early in the contest and run out a clear winner in this one… providing he resists the urge to change his darts.
Dave Chisnall win and most 180s @ EVS
Chisnall is a player whose impressive form has perhaps fallen under the radar so far this season, with two ProTour titles and the Danish Open already under his belt.
Five times a Matchplay quarter-finalist, ‘Chizzy’ has not lost in the opening round here since 2012 and convincingly won his last two televised matches against Max Hopp in 2018.
Hopp has suffered successive First Round exits in Blackpool and could find it tough going if he is to live with Chisnall’s trademark scoring power over this distance.
Chisnall’s 180s per leg ratio this term is the highest of the field (0.37) and even money looks a tempting price for the St Helens star to prevail and top the maximum column.
Michael van Gerwen most 180s, highest checkout and win @ 6/5
Van Gerwen has made a habit of silencing the critics throughout his illustrious career so far, and the coming week in Blackpool could see him do just the same.
The world number one and World Champion made a rip-roaring start to the season, following up his Masters triumph with six ranking titles and a defence of his Premier League crown.
In the subsequent two months, he has been somewhat less rampant, losing in the Semi-Finals of the World Cup and final of the Dutch Masters, before successive early exits in the World Series left many questioning his current mindset.
Matchplay champion in 2015 and 2016, MVG will be keen to banish last year’s shock First Round exit and continue his dominance of ranked majors, starting by laying down a marker against veteran Steve Beaton.
The Dutch dynamo has fond memories of facing Beaton at the Winter Gardens, having famously landed a nine-darter in this fixture in 2012, and the long format makes him overwhelming favourite to prevail once again.
Beaton has lost in the opening round in five of his last six visits to Blackpool and faces an uphill task here, with MVG value at odds-against to be ‘King of The Oche’.
Glen Durrant v Adrian Lewis – Over 16.5 total legs @ 8/11
Arguably the stand-out tie of the opening round features a show-down between two multiple World Champions as reigning Lakeside king Durrant meets two-time PDC World Champion Lewis.
The duo enter the clash under contrasting circumstances, with Durrant having enjoyed a blistering start to life in the PDC, picking up two ProTour titles and securing an immediate qualification for the sport’s second biggest major.
Lewis, meanwhile, is battling to rediscover the form which made him one of the sport’s box office stars at the beginning of the decade and knows he must avoid an early exit here if he is to remain among the elite top 16.
Lewis’ form in recent months had signalled real cause for concern, but a timely run to the Semi-Finals of Wednesday’s ProTour event reminded everyone exactly how dangerous the Stoke natural talent can be.
Durrant is realising his dream of competing on the Winter Gardens stage and must overcome the inevitable early nerves against a player who has been there and done it multiple times over.
Their last meeting in a Players Championship event went to a deciding leg, and everything points to this box office encounter going long. It would take a brave man to confidently call a winner and don’t be surprised if it has to be settled in overtime.