Premier League play-offs preview - Dave Allen
PHIL TAYLOR is bidding to win a seventh McCoy's Premier League Darts title at The O2 on Thursday - but will face fierce competition for the £150,000 first prize from Dutch pair Michael van Gerwen and Raymond van Barneveld and 2009 champion James Wade at the London venue.
World Champion Taylor will take on Dutch rival van Barneveld in Thursday's opening semi-final in front of 10,000 fans at The O2, as he bids to retain the prestigious title.
While Taylor is the most experienced of his Play-Off rivals, he enters the semi-finals having finished third in the regular season table - the first time since the tournament was introduced in 2005 that he has not topped the standings following the weekly rounds.
He has also suffered four losses for the first time in the event, although he enters the Play-Offs on the back of a six game unbeaten run as he prepares to meet Dutch rival van Barneveld.
"It's going to be a great night on Thursday and I can't wait for it," said Taylor. "Just to be in the Play-Offs is an achievement because it's been such a tough field this year with ten fantastic players.
"It's been a long few months and I've learned a lot. I'm working hard and I feel good, and my form's been picking up at the right time to hopefully peak this week."
Taylor and van Barneveld also met in the World Championship semi-finals less than five months ago, while the world number one also took a win and a draw from their regular season clashes.
Van Barneveld, though, finished second above Taylor in the final league table, and Taylor admitted: "Barney's done fantastically well this season and I know how tough it's going to be in the semis.
"This will be different to the last 14 weeks because it's knockout now so we'll be going out there all guns blazing - it should be a cracker!"
For the first time, Taylor enters the Play-Offs as the second favourite with bookmakers Coral, the official betting partner of the event who make the reigning champion 7/4 to lift the title behind 11/10 favourite Michael van Gerwen.
The Dutch youngster has enjoyed an exceptional debut Premier League season, topping the league table with 11 victories from 16 matches, and plays 2009 champion James Wade in their semi-final.
"It was great for me to finish at the top of the table and it's a very proud moment for me, but I want to go on and win the title now," said van Gerwen.
"We've got one big week left, and two more games to win - and I want to win them both."
Van Gerwen hit a nine-darter against Wade when they met in the World Championship semi-finals, but knows that the left-hander has the class to upset the odds on Thursday night.
"James is one of the best players in the world," van Gerwen said. "He knows exactly how to beat an opponent - he just does a little bit more every time, but I think my form is there to beat him.
"I just want to play my own game and then I know I can beat him. Sometimes you just need to win your games, it doesn't matter how."
Wade won the Premier League Darts title in 2009 and is also a two-time finalist in the event, and secured his place in the Play-Offs with a draw against Taylor in Newcastle last week.
"To be in the semis is another milestone and I want to go onwards and upwards," said Wade. "I still haven't played great, and I've managed to get through games which I probably shouldn't have, and I've rode a bit of luck.
"I feel fresh now - like I've done a big run but I'm not sure if I can cross the finishing line, and then I break again and now I'm ready to do a big sprint."
Wade travels to The O2 as the 8/1 outsider to lift the title on Thursday, nit added: "I really don't believe if you've got any sane bone in your body that you'd pick a player to win it this year.
"I think there's some really good strong players out there - Michael's playing brilliant darts and hitting doubles for fun.
"He's a brilliant player but I'm also pretty good myself - I'm probably better than average, but the other players in the semis this year are better than average as well!"
Van Barneveld, an 11/2 chance to win the title, is looking to erase the memory of five previous Premier League semi-final exits when he takes to the stage against Taylor on Thursday.
However, he has ended the league season with four straight victories to finish only a point behind van Gerwen in the league table, and admitted: "To make it into the top two, you can say this was a really good Premier League.
"I've missed out on the Play-Offs twice in the last couple of years so my focus was firstly not to be relegated after nine weeks and then my target was to get into the top four.
"I've had many years in the semi-finals so hopefully I'm going to make the final - but my first target is Phil Taylor, and it's a really hard target!
"I know I can beat him but it seems he's always playing his A-game against me, but if I play my A-game I can beat anyone I want. It's going to be a good battle and I'm looking forward to it."
Van Barneveld has never defeated Taylor in the Premier League, ending a run of 14 successive losses by drawing with the reigning champion in Dublin last month.
The Dutchman missed five darts to claim victory in that tie, but insists: "That game doesn't say anything.
"He's beaten me so many times and then he got a draw in Dublin, but that doesn't mean that this time I'm going to beat him.
"It says a lot that I'm battling, I'm back, my head is right and I believe in myself again - and if I believe in myself then I can achieve anything I want."
The McCoy's Premier League Darts Play-Offs will also feature the PDC Unicorn World Youth Championship Final, which will be held following the two Premier League semi-finals.
The PDC Unicorn World Youth Championship Final will feature Kettering's Ricky Evans taking on St Helens youngster Michael Smith over the best of 11 legs, with the winner claiming a £10,000 first prize.
Tickets for Thursday's McCoy's Premier League Darts Play-Offs at The O2 in London are still available by calling 0844 856 0202 or by visiting www.axs.com.
The McCoy's Premier League Darts Play-Offs will be screened live on Sky Sports HD1 from 7pm on Thursday, with coverage also live worldwide through RTL7 in the Netherlands, Sport1 in Germany, OSN across the Middle East, Fox Sports in Australia and through www.LIVEPDC.TV for International Pass Subscribers.
McCoy's Premier League DartsPlay-Offs
May 16 - The O2, London
Schedule of Play
McCoy's Premier League Darts Semi-Finals
Raymond van Barneveld v Phil Taylor
Michael van Gerwen v James Wade
Best of 15 legs
PDC Unicorn World Youth Championship Final
Ricky Evans v Michael Smith
Best of 11 legs
McCoy's Premier League Darts Final
van Gerwen/Wade v van Barneveld/Taylor
Best of 19 legs