The waiting is over! The 2016 Premier League Darts kicks off at the First Direct Arena in Leeds tomorrow night, and there are five fantastic matches in store.
Defending Premier League champion, Gary Anderson, begins his title defence against Adrian Lewis in a repeat of last month’s World Championship final, whilst old rivals Phil Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld also clash. Josh’s Dartistry assesses the week’s action and gives his predictions.
Peter Wright v Michael Smith
Premier League debutant Michael Smith will kick off the 2016 campaign when he faces 2014 World Championship finalist Peter Wright. Both have enjoyed similar success in recent events. Both men reached the World Championship quarter-finals last month, where they were beaten by Raymond van Barneveld and Adrian Lewis respectively.
The pair were also both beaten in the Unibet Masters quarter-finals last weekend. Wright was edged out 10-9 in an epic last eight tie by Phil Taylor, whilst Smith was on the receiving end of a Michael van Gerwen rampage. After trailing 8-0, ‘Bully-Boy’ eventually succumbed to a 10-3 defeat.
It will be fascinating to see how Smith copes with the Premier League experience. He is immensely talented and he appears to thrive under the spotlight, although facing the world’s elite week-in-week out is a draining prospect. Wright was relegated in last year’s Premier League, finishing in 9th position. However, ‘Snakebite’ was guilty of frequently tinkering with his set up and he’ll be desperate to make amends in 2016.
Smith’s biggest asset is undoubtedly his scoring power; he is particularly prolific in the 180 department. The former World Youth Champion is also an impressive combination finisher, but inconsistency could be the biggest concern for the St Helen’s star. I expect this to be an evenly-matched contest, but Wright is the more clinical and experienced campaigner, which could pay dividends.
Prediction: Wright 7-5 Smith
Michael van Gerwen v James Wade
Michael van Gerwen bounced back from his World Championship heartbreak in perfect fashion last weekend, by retaining his Unibet Masters title. MvG enjoyed an outstanding 2015, winning 18 titles in total, and the evidence indicates that he may enjoy similar success this year.
Wade enjoyed a relatively successful weekend in Milton Keynes, reaching the semi-finals, where he suffered an 11-6 defeat against Dave Chisnall. ‘The Machine’ struggled to click into gear throughout the tournament, but his notorious tenacity saw him overcome Terry Jenkins and Kim Huybrechts to reach the last four.
Wade won the last meeting between the pair, edging out van Gerwen 10-9 in the Perth Darts Masters last August, but that contest apart, his recent record against the ‘Green Machine’ is concerning. Prior to their clash down under, van Gerwen had won their last 9 meetings, which included a 7-0 drubbing in their most recent Premier League clash last year.
James is an outstanding match-player and he’s extremely difficult to beat. However, he has been unable to replicate MvG’s consistency and power in the scoring department over recent matches, which could be another concern in Leeds. Whilst Wade has notably become more prolific in regards to hitting maximums, the overall consistency in his game is still somewhat lacking.
Van Gerwen will still be smarting from losing last year’s Premier League to Gary Anderson, despite topping the league phase, and I expect the world number one to deliver an eye-catching performance in Leeds, with an average in excess of 105. If Wade is proficient in the doubling stakes, he could test the Dutchman, but I expect van Gerwen to kick off his 2016 campaign with a valuable victory.
Prediction: Van Gerwen 7-4 Wade
Phil Taylor v Raymond van Barneveld
We will witness another instalment of the classic rivalry between Phil Taylor and Raymond van Barneveld on Thursday evening. The pair have met an astonishing 72 times in major competition, which is testament to both their longevity and desire.
Whilst Taylor has been the dominant force in the overall head-to-head record, van Barneveld is unbeaten in his last six Premier League matches against ‘The Power’, and Barney will be hoping to extend that run in Leeds this week.
Taylor comes into this year’s Premier League under considerable scrutiny, with many people questioning his long-term future following his World Championship last 16 exit against Jelle Klaasen.
Nevertheless, Taylor’s performance at the Unibet Masters dispelled many of the doubters. He will have been immensely frustrated by missing seven match-darts to defeat MvG, but the signs were extremely encouraging for the Stoke star.
Van Barneveld enjoyed a tremendous end to 2015, reaching the semi-finals in both the Grand Slam and World Championship, which saw him reclaim his spot in the world’s top ten. Barney memorably defeated van Gerwen in the last 16 at the Ally Pally, which reaffirmed that he still possesses the ability and mentality to defeat the very best.
Raymond wasn’t at his best in the Unibet Masters, although he had been holidaying in Hong Kong after a draining World Championship, therefore he didn’t have much opportunity to practise. He’ll certainly be prepared to take on the 16-time world champion tomorrow.
This is a tough one to call. If we are judging this purely on their Masters displays, Taylor would be the obvious favourite, but I think Barney will be able to replicate the performances he produced at the World Championships, and this could potentially be the first stalemate of this year’s Premier League.
Prediction: Taylor 6-6 Van Barneveld
Gary Anderson v Adrian Lewis
This could be the match of the evening. Anderson is riding the crest of a wave; not only is he the reigning World Champion, he is also defending his Premier League crown, which he won for the second time in his career last May. By comparison, Lewis will be seeking retribution.
Anderson and Lewis are extremely close friends, but they will be enemies when they take to the oche in front of the 11,000 capacity crowd. Both men suffered first-round Masters exits; Lewis was beaten 10-4 by Kim Huybrechts, whilst Anderson was shocked 10-7 by Vincent van der Voort, although this will have little relevance on Thursday’s proceedings.
Adrian’s abject Premier League record is one of the great darting mysteries. His ability is undeniable, but he’s only reached the play-off stage twice in eight attempts, which is a poor return for a player of his calibre. He was in danger of relegation last year, before eventually finishing in 6th position.
However, he’ll be hoping to transfer his form from the second half of 2015, on to the Premier League stage. He reached the semi-finals of the European Championships and World Series, the quarter-finals of the Grand Slam, and the final of the Players Championship Finals and the Worlds. This is the type of consistency required to secure a top four berth.
Many experts questioned how Gary Anderson would cope with the pressure of being World Champion, but he answered his critics emphatically, by winning the Premier League and retaining his World title. Gary has always had the ability, but now he has the champion’s mentality to match.
This is an extremely difficult match to call, because given both players’ mercurial natures, the scoreline could be quite comprehensive either way. However, I think this will be a hard-fought match, where the slightest of mistakes may be ruthlessly punished. Anderson just appears to have that edge in critical moments of matches, which could prove to be decisive.
Prediction: Anderson 7-4 Lewis
Robert Thornton v Dave Chisnall
Thornton and Chisnall met in the Unibet Masters first-round on Saturday, in one of the most remarkable matches in the tournament’s history. Thornton led 8-0 after Chizzy endured a torrid time on the doubles, but the Scot somehow squandered his seemingly unassailable advantage, succumbing to a 10-9 defeat.
Chisnall can’t afford to produce such a sluggish start this week, but the three-time major finalist will surely be galvanised by his run to the final in Milton Keynes. Chizzy’s emergence was one of the stories of last year’s Premier League. The St Helen’s ace was favourite to be relegated, but instead finished 2nd in the group phase.
Thornton will be thrilled to make his Premier League return, after being controversially omitted in 2015. ‘The Thorn’ endured mixed fortunes last year, but secured his inclusion through winning the World Grand-Prix, beating MvG 5-4 in a thrilling final.
Nevertheless, from this point onwards, the Scot has struggled for form and confidence. Thornton has been hampered by an on-going foot problem, which saw him suffer a first-round exit in the World Championships. He is a tenacious character, and he’ll have to demonstrate this quality throughout the campaign.
Thornton’s D20 hitting can be almost robotic when he’s at his best, although his doubling has been plagued by inconsistency in recent months. Chisnall might well monopolise the scoring stakes, therefore it’s imperative that ‘The Thorn’ takes full advantage of his opportunities.
Chisnall has triumphed in the last three TV meetings between the pair, which incidentally have all taken place in the Masters. Dave is certainly the form man, and I think his incredible comeback victory over Robert last weekend could play a key psychological role in the eventual outcome.
Prediction: Thornton 5-7 Chisnall