15 Jul, 2021

The World Matchplay returns to its home of Blackpool Winter Gardens this year, following a year behind closed doors in Milton Keynes, and a full crowd will return from the third day of the event. While the return to normality is welcome, there is a different feel to the tournament this year with some notable names failing to qualify.

Team Target is sending five players to the Winter Gardens, including Rob Cross - the man who lifted The Phil Taylor Trophy when the tournament was last held in Blackpool. Below, we assess their prospects in the biggest ranking tournament outside of the World Championship.

Rob Cross

Previous best: Winner 2019

Odds: 33-1

Opening game: Ross Smith

There are perhaps more reasons for optimism for "Voltage" than there have been for over a year, as Cross has been steadily rediscovering his form. Anything less than winning the title is likely to see him slide down the world rankings (as he is set to lose £150,000 from his victory in 2019), but that money is easily recouped if he can find the winning touch once more.

A number of quarter-final runs on the Pro Tour this year have seen Cross produce regular 100+ averages, but another early elimination from the Premier League cannot give him much confidence that his game is where it needs to be for such a test.

"Voltage" is looking better than he has since 2019, when he won both the Matchplay and European titles, but there is still some way to go before he can truly claim he is back to his best. An opening game against a recent winner on the circuit, Ross Smith, should be a good indicator of his title credentials.

Nathan Aspinall

Ranking: 11

Previous best: First round 2019, 2020

Odds: 25-1

Opening game: Mervyn King

The sponsors make Nathan the best hope of lifting the trophy for Team Target, but he will no doubt be focused on simply winning his first ever game at the tournament. Last year saw "The Asp" lose his opening match to the eventual champion Dimitri Van den Bergh, while his debut in 2019 saw him beaten by Mervyn King (despite averaging almost 103!). Fate has pitted Aspinall against "The King" for a second time in Blackpool, which does at least provide an opportunity for revenge against the eternally dangerous veteran.

Back-to-back semi-finals on the Pro Tour to start 2021 was an early indication that Nathan might be one to watch on the circuit this year, and once again he impressed in a run to the Premier League Playoffs, but things have stalled a little for Aspinall of late.

It has been more than a year since he last picked up a title of any sort, but there have been no titles for Gary Anderson, Daryl Gurney or Michael van Gerwen (the other three seeds in his quarter of the draw) this year either. If "The Asp" can finally pick up his first win in the event, then he could well find himself powering into the latter stages.

Glen Durrant

Ranking: 12

Previous best: Semi-final 2019, 2020

Odds: 200-1

Opening game: Callan Rydz

It has been a frustrating few months for the three-time Lakeside World Champion, who has been installed as the rank outsider in the 32-man field. There is no doubting the class of "Duzza", and the entire world of darts is willing him to find his feet once more.

If there is anywhere that could inspire Glen to get back on the right track though, it may be Blackpool. In just two years, "Duzza" has made the semi-finals twice, including memorable victories over Lewis, Wright, Wade and Van Gerwen. Durrant will have the advantage of experience against his first round opponent Callan Rydz, who makes his debut at a unique venue in the sport.

It would be great to see Durrant magically rediscover his brilliant best.

Gabriel Clemens

Ranking: 25

Previous best: Second round 2019

Odds: 80-1

Opening game: Jose de Sousa

The German number one is now an established player within the world's top 32 and is becoming accustomed to competing in the biggest tournaments. Indeed, Gabriel has reached the last 16 of every single ranking major in the PDC apart from the European Championship.

Last year's Matchplay debut saw him overcome Rob Cross before losing in a high-quality battle with Krzyzstof Ratajski that went all the way to a tie-break. However, that was in Milton Keynes and "The German Giant" has yet to experience the thrill of a packed Blackpool Winter Gardens crowd. There will only be a limited number of fans allowed on Sunday night, when Gabriel faces the devastatingly in-form Jose de Sousa - so he will need to produce an upset if he is to get a chance to play in front of a full house in round two.

The draw has been unkind to Clemens though, with Peter Wright, Joe Cullen and Michael Smith all in the same section, alongside some very dangerous unseeded players.

Stephen Bunting

Ranking: 18

Previous best: Quarter-final 2019

Odds: 80-1

Opening game: Gary Anderson

"The Bullet" comes into this year's Matchplay having claimed his first ranking title in half a decade, and many will fancy him to repeat his heroics from the most recent World Championship. Bunting reached the semi-finals at Alexandra Palace over Christmas and will see no reason why he could not at least match that at the Winter Gardens.

Blackpool had not been a happy hunting ground for Bunting, with only one win in five years before his quarter-final run in 2019. One of those losses was a narrow one (10-7) to Gary Anderson in 2018, the year that "The Flying Scotsman" went on to lift the trophy. The draw has set them against each other in the first round once more, but this time the outcome may well be different.

It is a particularly interesting quarter of the draw, with Bunting the only player to win a PDC title so far this year, despite the presence of some big names including Michael van Gerwen. It looks as though "The Bullet" may have hit form at the perfect time to make his mark on another major tournament.

Event photos © Lawrence Lustig/PDC

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