After a decent dose of drama on Friday, the Masters is back with yet more first round action on Saturday evening.

Michael van Gerwen starts his third title defence in the last fixture of the evening. Before that, the likes of Gary Anderson and Daryl Gurney come out to play. With Rob Cross looking good, and Peter Wright, Raymond van Barneveld and Mensur Suljovic all safely through, it’s up to the next eight to lay down a marker of their own.

Simon Whitlock vs James Wade

Only one player has been in the top 16 of every Order of Merit ever released. It’s not Michael van Gerwen. Nor is it Phil Taylor, who doesn’t appear in this month’s rankings. It’s James Wade, who has never dipped below 12th. Right now, however, he might be looking over his shoulder and worrying that record is in danger. After a lacklustre defeat to Keegan Brown at the World Championship, Wade is the ninth seed at the Masters. This tournament is the last major that he won, with victory over Mervyn King four years ago. Since then, there have been just three major finals, and three semi-finals. Poor form in 2017 means Wade was never likely to be picked for the Premier League.

Thanks mainly to his Grand Prix antics, Simon Whitlock was chosen for the world’s biggest exhibition series. Or the newest major, depending on your viewpoint. The world number eight edged out the likes of Kyle Anderson and Dimitri van den Bergh to get the nod. Whitlock does deserve another shot at the Premier League, but needs to use the Masters to arrest a slump in form. Shock defeats to Berry van Peer and Cameron Menzies at the Grand Slam were followed by a poor showing against Martin Schindler at the Ally Pally. He edged through that, only to take another thrashing at the hands of Darren Webster. For Whitlock and Wade, this game could help prove a point, and prevent a worrying slide. With the pair separated by one spot in the Order of Merit, this really is too close to call.

Daryl Gurney vs Gerwyn Price

Confidence? Check. On-stage aggro? Check. Top tungsten talent? Another check. A big part of the future of darts? You better believe it. It’s fair to say that Daryl Gurney and Gerwyn Price have plenty in common. This is the first time the pair have met in a game that wasn’t best of 11. Price won five of their previous meetings – 6-5, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. Gurney won the other 6-4, incidentally. It is always a close contest between the pair. The Northern Irishman is the fifth seed thanks to his Grand Prix victory. But a worrying wobble at the Ally Pally against John Henderson was a reminder that he’s got a lot of learning left to do.

Price made it to round three in the World Championship before falling to Michael van Gerwen, having finally won on the famous stage for the first time. The 2017 UK Open finalist is, like Gurney, a Masters debutant. The pair will also do battle in this year’s Premier League. With Gary Anderson or Benito van de Pas lying in wait for the winner, now is the time to generate some momentum. But the formbook suggests it won’t be easy for whoever comes out on top. Not that we need its help to know that.

Gary Anderson vs Benito van de Pas

Last year’s runner-up, Gary Anderson, returns to Milton Keynes as the fourth seed. Despite some back problems, he’s feeling good. Anderson has train-like momentum at his best, and it could see him through to another major final. The key this weekend is just getting back into form and making sure the back complaints won’t stand in his way. A bad back is more likely to derail Anderson than Benito van de Pas. The world number 13 has made a habit of making almost no impact at major tournaments. His 2017 record improves on his 2016 one just once – an exit in the second round of the European Championship, not the first. Van de Pas has years ahead of him, but the likes of Cross and Gurney have left him in their wake recently. He has to prove himself as someone able to have an impact on the top level – starting now.

Michael van Gerwen vs Kim Huybrechts

Michael van Gerwen has played in every Masters. Kim Huybrechts has missed only one. But this is the first time the Benelux rivals have met at the stadium:mk. Of their last 15 clashes in ranking tournaments, Huybrechts has emerged victorious just once. The Belgian’s defeat against James Richardson at the World Championship was baffling, and yet believable at the same time. Huybrechts is painfully inconsistent. At his best, he can beat anyone. But who knows when his best will appear? It’ll be needed if he’s to reach the Masters quarter-finals, for sure.

Huybrechts takes on the man who has ended this tournament as the champion in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Van Gerwen may still be reeling after his stunning World Championship exit – and a chance to put Phil Taylor in his place on last time. Or he may have put it all behind him, ready to conquer the world again in 2018. It is better to see van Gerwen at his majestic best than limping past inferior players, allowing his B-game to do the work. Neither Huybrechts, nor Whitlock or Wade, are likely to need the full van Gerwen treatment. But he will have to get used to having a target on his back, with top class players around him discovering a winning mentality of their own. His Masters performance will establish what we should expect of him in the coming 12 months.

Tags: | | | | | | | | |

Author: Ed McCosh