The 2018 Unibet Premier League gets underway at Dublin’s 3Arena on Thursday evening and it’s set to be an intriguing campaign, with six changes from last year’s line-up- which includes four debutants.
World number one Michael van Gerwen, UK Open champion Peter Wright and former Premier League winners Gary Anderson and Raymond van Barneveld are the four players to retain their spots from last year’s event, but there are a host of fresh faces, including newly crowned world champion Rob Cross.
Simon Whitlock returns to the Premier League fold after a four-year hiatus, whilst former World Youth champion Michael Smith will make his second appearance, having been relegated on debut back in 2016.
Cross leads the list of the four debutants this year after his stunning World Championship triumph at the Alexandra Palace. He’ll be joined by Daryl Gurney and Mensur Suljovic- both of whom clinched maiden TV titles last year, whilst UK Open and World Cup finalist Gerwyn Price completes the 10-man line-up.
Phil Taylor doesn’t feature after his recent retirement, whilst seasoned Premier League campaigners Adrian Lewis and James Wade failed to make the cut. Dave Chisnall misses out for the first time since 2013 after enduring a disappointing twelve months, whilst Jelle Klaasen and Kim Huybrechts are dropped having suffered relegation last year.
It’s arguably one of the most open fields since the tournament’s inaugural staging in 2006 and with the plethora of new faces making their debuts this year, it will be fascinating to see how they adapt to the atmosphere and occasion. Josh’s Dartistry assesses this year’s crop and predicts how the table will shape up come May.
Michael van Gerwen
It’s very difficult to look past Michael van Gerwen this year. Since making his debut back in 2013, ‘The Green Machine’ has topped the league phase for five years in succession and you’d be a brave person to back against him extending that run further in 2018.
Although the Dutchman was beaten in an epic World Championship semi-final by Rob Cross, it’s easy to forget that Van Gerwen was the dominant force in world darts last year. He retained his Masters, Premier League, European Championship, Grand Slam and Players Championship Finals titles, winning 18 in total.
Peter Wright came agonisingly close to securing Premier League glory last year. Snakebite reached the play-offs for the very first time in 2017, before squandering SIX match darts to defeat Van Gerwen in a dramatic finale.
However, the Scot was the epitome of consistency last year and given the mercurial nature of this year’s field, his reliability and ability to churn out results when necessary equips him perfectly to finish in the top four once again.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how Rob Cross copes in his debut Premier League campaign. It’s been a whirlwind twelve months for the former electrician but if his World Championship exploits are anything to go by, he won’t be at all fazed by the prospect of taking on the world’s elite on a weekly basis.
‘Voltage’ took everything in his stride throughout last year, winning four Players Championship titles, reaching his first TV final at the European Championship, before going on to claim world title glory at the Ally Pally. It will be a test for Cross, but it’s one I believe he’ll pass and I fully expect him to be in play-off contention after 16 weeks.
Gary Anderson will be bidding for a third Premier League crown in 2018. The two-time world champion has reached the play-offs in each of the last four seasons, although his preparation this time around has been blighted by his ongoing injury woes.
‘The Flying Scotsman’ suffered a back injury during the Grand Slam which derailed his recent World Championship bid. He reached the last four at last week’s Masters but was still in considerable pain and admitted he may not return to full fitness for another two months. If he wasn’t injury-hit I feel he’d be a certainty for the top four.
Daryl Gurney enjoyed a meteoric rise in 2017, winning his first major TV title at the World Grand Prix and climbing into the world’s top four. The Northern Irishman was remarkably consistent across the major events last year, reaching at least the quarter-finals in all majors up until the World Championship. That will hold him in good stead.
However, ‘Super-Chin’ suffered a surprise second-round exit at the Ally Pally to John Henderson, before losing in round-one of the Masters to Gerwyn Price. As a consequence, he’ll be eager to hit the ground running on debut, because as a debutant he’s bound to be a little edgy in the opening weeks.
It’s very difficult to predict how Mensur Suljovic will fare on his Premier League debut. The enigmatic Austrian has admitted he’s very nervous, although he notoriously downplays his chances in major tournaments so that shouldn’t be too concerning for his supporters.
Suljovic memorably sealed his first major TV title in September’s Champions League of Darts, but since then he has struggled. He made a strong start to the 2018 season at last week’s Masters, but the key to his aspirations could be his scoring. His combination finishing is terrific, but he cannot showcase that unless he gives himself opportunities.
Simon Whitlock will return to the Premier League fold after a four-year hiatus. ‘The Wizard’ was relegated back in 2014 after acquiring just four points from nine games and this sparked the decline which saw him fall outside the world’s top 16. However, the Aussie has recovered well and now finds himself 8th on the current Order of Merit.
Whitlock’s inclusion was largely down to his run to the World Grand Prix final back in October. Despite this, the field was decimated due to early shocks and big-name absentees and since then his form has been very underwhelming. He’s certainly got the pedigree but on current form, it could be an unhappy return for Whitlock.
Raymond van Barneveld
Raymond van Barneveld is the elder statesman of the field in Phil Taylor’s absence. Yet the five-time world champion comes into this event in good form. He reached the World Championship quarter-finals before losing out 5-4 to MvG, before appearing in his first major TV final since 2015 at last week’s Masters, again succumbing to MvG in a thriller.
Van Barneveld won this title back in 2014 and has an impressive record in the competition. He has reached the play-offs in eight of his twelve previous appearances, although he’s not made the top four since 2015. Nevertheless, with an influx of fresh faces, could Van Barneveld’s experience prove pivotal this season?
Michael Smith was perhaps a surprise inclusion to some for this year’s competition. However, he fits the Premier League bill perfectly. He’s a quick thrower, a prolific maximum-hitter, capable of big combination finishes and also a mercurial talent. Nevertheless, I think he’s a more mature proposition then he was two years ago.
‘Bully-Boy’ had to play two matches on the opening night on his debut in 2016 and after suffering successive defeats, he struggled to recover. He claimed his fifth European Tour title in Gibraltar back in May and has produced terrific performances- albeit in a losing cause, against Gary Anderson and Rob Cross in recent months.
Gerwyn Price is the fourth and final debutant to feature in this year’s Premier League roadshow. The Welshman has been rewarded for reaching the final of both the UK Open and World Cup in 2017 and he will relish the boisterous Premier League atmospheres.
His performances and results over the last twelve months have certainly merited his inclusion, although he has even admitted that his consistency is an issue. You’re up against the best players week-in-week out and I think he may struggle to close out tightly-contested matches. That could prove to be his undoing.
Photo Credits: Lawrence Lustig/PDC