The first major PDC tournament of 2018 is finally here.

The 16 best players in the Order of Merit meet at stadium:mk in Milton Keynes to contest the Masters. Phil Taylor and James Wade were the first two winners of this event. But, since then, Michael van Gerwen has been the sole possessor of the trophy. Will someone take his crown after three years of dominance?

The first evening’s play sees the world champion take to the stage. Joining Rob Cross are fellow Premier League stars Peter Wright, Raymond van Barneveld, Michael Smith and Mensur Suljovic. Whether they had a great or poor 2017, all eight of these players will be hoping to kick 2018 off in the right fashion.

Raymond van Barneveld vs Dave Chisnall

After promising to commit more to the Pro Tour and European Tour, Raymond van Barneveld has a busy year ahead of him. The five-time world champion’s immense popularity earned himself a Premier League spot – despite indifferent form in 2017. It’s now closing in on six years since Barney won a major without the assistance of Michael van Gerwen. Unless you count the Premier League, that is. Then it’s a nicer-sounding four year drought. He comes to this as the tenth seed, which reflects his drop in stature.

He doesn’t have to tell Dave Chisnall about dipping form. Chizzy’s 2017 stage form was, put frankly, abysmal. A 10-5 defeat to tonight’s opponent in the 2017 Masters started a slump in major tournaments. In the past year, he has only passed the second round once – at the UK Open, where going out in the fourth round isn’t much to shout about. Going out in the fourth round this weekend would mean being runner-up, which would be right more up his alley. Both have lost to van Gerwen in the final of this competition before. But, for now, the objective will just be ensuring 2018 doesn’t start in the worst possible fashion.

Mensur Suljovic vs Michael Smith

Mensur Suljovic and Michael Smith will be seeing each other soon. The pair meet again on February 5, for Week 3 of the Premier League in Newcastle. Before that, though, they’ve got a Masters meeting to battle through. Incredibly, Smith is exactly the same seed – 11 – as he was last year. Then, a 100 average wasn’t enough to see him past Phil Taylor. Bully Boy, evidently capable of repeat performances, might get past the big Austrian with more of the same. His outstanding performance in spite of defeat to Rob Cross in a World Championship classic shows he’s got the class – but does he have the bottle?

Reaching the quarter-finals in his first Masters last year sparked a successful run for Suljovic. Three more major quarter-finals, a semi-final and a Champions League win made 2017 a real breakthrough campaign for the Gentle. Now the crowd-pleaser will get to try his hand at the Premier League. What he needs to do now, in a time of great transition at the top of the Order of Merit, is become an established top player. That means winning games like this, and ensuring he is around on the last day of big tournaments.

Rob Cross vs Ian White

The last time Rob Cross took to the stage, he came off it as a record-breaking world champion. There is nothing about his meteoric rise in 2017 that hasn’t already been said. There is a much smaller possible trajectory in the year to come. But Cross can turn his attention to the full range of majors. This is his first Masters, and he comes in as the third seed. After Ian White would be Smith or Suljovic, then Peter Wright. Then, perhaps, we could see a repeat of his remarkable Ally Pally win over Michael van Gerwen. Thanks to the luck of the draw, that rematch is already scheduled for Week One of the Premier League in Dublin.

To chart Cross’ run to Milton Keynes glory too soon would be an insult to Ian White. Some excellent floor performances, plus a UK Open quarter-final, have kept him among the best in business. He can proudly call himself the best player the famous darting production line of Stoke-on-Trent has to offer. At least, he is according to the Order of Merit. And the Masters line-up too, as he’s the only Stokie going. His problem is a pretty atrocious record in majors. This is his fourth Masters. But he, just like Cross, goes into this game without ever winning a game in this tournament. Something’s got to give.

Peter Wright vs Alan Norris

Last year would have been both pleasing and bitterly disappointing for Peter Wright. Snakebite is now the world number two, and the Pro Tour Player of the Year. Wright won the UK Open, averaged 119.5 on stage, and won a hat-trick of UK Open Qualifier and European Tour titles. But chances to win the Premier League, World Matchplay and Grand Slam all went begging. The former, in particular, was enough to make anyone cringe in horror. The task ahead is to become a real force in darts, something he is capable of. But van Gerwen still reigns supreme, and the likes of Cross have shown they’ve got what it takes. Wright needs to develop a nervous streak.

That starts here, against fellow Scottish-English hybrid star Alan Norris. Even now, Norris may still feel like it should have been he who took on Wright in the UK Open final. A lack of luck or composure cost him dearly. Losing dismally to James Richardson in the World Championship second round was not a confidence boost, either. But Norris did enough in 2017 to break into the world’s top 16 for the first time. If he can find another level, he could keep climbing the rankings. That starts now, with a chance to beat a world number two still getting back to form after illness and a shock World Championship exit.

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Author: Edward McCosh