Hector Nunns Quarter-Final Preview
By Hector Nunns, snooker correspondent for The Times
The hoped-for fresh faces and new stories of the type seen in football's FA Cup certainly materialised in York this year at the williamhill.com UK Championship - but to no great surprise despite the 128-man draw the cream has risen to the top for the business end of the tournament as the quest for the £150,000 first prize hots up.
Shane Castle, at just 15 years of age, gave a good account of himself against defending champion Mark Selby, and looked crestfallen at not having taken the match closer than 6-4. And another amateur given his chance, Sheffield's Mitchell Travis, grabbed his opportunity with both hands.
A stunning shock win over world No6 Marco Fu, unquestionably one of the players of the calendar year, was followed up with victory over talented Londoner-turned-Norwegian Kurt Maflin, before Travis's run was finally ended by renaissance man David Morris - the young Irishman looking determined to make a better fist of his second spell on tour.
However when the dust settled after a week's combat, the bald facts were these. The last 16 comprised 14 of the top 16 in the world rankings making for a powerful line-up and almost guaranteeing a thrilling conclusion to the tournament. The only players not to make it were Hong Kong's Fu and Sussex's Mark Davis, who lost 6-5 to Scott Donaldson.
Since before the start of the tournament the money has been lumped on Ronnie O'Sullivan, who was as big as 9-2 before a ball was potted but stands at 2-1 this morning. Marcus Campbell, his beaten opponent on Tuesday, raised perhaps the only issue troubling Rocket-backers in the post-match press conference - that he goes best fresh, and suggesting that having won the Champion of Champions event in Coventry last month fatigue might be a factor in this long test.
Even though Rob Milkins will be full of confidence after earning himself a first ever appearance in January's Masters with his run here and previous results, he will have to produce something special to actually remove O'Sullivan this evening. And an O'Sullivan/Neil Robertson semi-final still looks the most likely last-four match-up in the bottom half, though other players will no doubt have something to say on the matter.
It is certainly hard to pick out highlights from a Wednesday programme oozing with quality, but if one match does stand out it is the repeat of the classic 2011 final here between Judd Trump and Northern Ireland's Mark Allen. Trump prevailed 10-8, but Allen made four centuries and the occasion simply confirmed that both would contend for years.
In the other matches Ricky Walden takes on Ding Junhui, Morris plays Stuart Bingham, Selby goes up against Graeme Dott and Neil Robertson attempts to "demolish" close friend and Cambridge practice partner Joe Perry.
Of the bets advised at the start, ‘rank outsider' and 200-1 shot Gary Wilson, with a taxi-driving sideline, at least gave punters a couple of rounds for their money. Suggested winner Robertson, tipped at 8-1, is still going strong and in to 9-2 going in to today's clash with Perry.
But ‘tempting price' Shaun Murphy, suggested at 28-1, went down 6-5 to Barry Hawkins on Tuesday night as May's Crucible runner-up became one of the first two players to reach the last eight, with still six last-16 matches to be played today. Stephen Maguire was the other, maintaining his recent Indian sign over fellow Scot John Higgins with a fifth win on the spin.
The two ‘name the finalists' bets though - Ding/Robertson at 18s, and Ding/O'Sullivan at 12s - are still alive.
Today could see the Milkins/O'Sullivan match go closer than many expect if the rejuvenated ‘Milkman', who knocked Robertson out at the Crucible and has reached two ranking semi-finals this season, plays to near his best form and the Rocket fails to fire on all cylinders.
Suggest a look at Milkins at +3.5 frames at 8-13, and total frames at over 9.5 at 7-4.