2022 Champion of Champions – Neal Foulds’ Preview and Mine …

The 2022 Champion of Champions starts tomorrow and Neal Foulds has been looking at the draw and shared his toughs about who might lift the trophy next Sunday:

Neal Foulds snooker column: ITV and Eurosport pundit with Champion of Champions predictions

I’m on duty for ITV Sport this week, with the Champion of Champions always a personal highlight of mine on the calendar and an event that promises so much in the coming days. 

It was back in 2013 when this tournament made its return – Ronnie O’Sullivan won that year and followed up 12 months later – and in many ways this event has been the flagship for snooker on ITV ever since, with the channel displaying a growing commitment to the sport in the ensuing years. 

It’s a week I always look forward to and I know there are lots of people, Neil Robertson for one, who have at times labelled this event as the fourth major in snooker. I wouldn’t argue too much with that, for all the Players Championship and Tour Championship continue to grow in stature, and I have a real soft spot for the Champion of Champions. 

When you talk about the prestige of a tournament, this one has all of that because it’s so hard just to earn the right to be here in the first place, with 15 of the 16 to have qualified having done so by winning a tournament in the last year – which is so hard to do when you consider the depth of talent on the tour. 

Mark Selby is the only player without a title win in the last 12 months, but he is currently ranked number four in the world. We are very much talking about the cream of the crop this week and I think that this is just another example of how the tour has grown, with so many big titles for the players to chase nowadays. 

And we must not forget the China Open which offered a huge prize fund and was quickly becoming a tournament of some repute before the pandemic. Hopefully that will return in the future. 

O’Sullivan set to shine on big stage

What tournaments like this one and the Tour Championship have in common is that they offer the one-table set-up we know the top players love so much. Nobody thrives in such an environment quite like Ronnie O’Sullivan and I’m tipping him to get his name on that trophy for a fourth time on Sunday. 

As three wins and two more finals demonstrate, O’Sullivan has dominated this tournament – particularly in the early years – and given the type of player he is now, and his age, I’m of the belief you must look at the biggest events on the calendar, with the biggest crowds and biggest prizes, and think that is when we’ll see him at his best. 

What I mean by the type of player he is nowadays, is that you can’t expect him to be motivated to win every event he enters. He’ll enter them because he wants to pick up important ranking points, but as we saw in the World Grand Prix and at the World Championship last season, it’s the real big nights that really set his pulse racing at this stage of his career. 

I wrote in my last column that I didn’t fancy him in Belfast and David Grace enjoyed a famous victory over him there, but O’Sullivan was back practicing and working on his game later that week and I think it’s weeks like the one coming up when we will see the real Rocket

He might not be able to motivate himself week in, week out like he might have a few years, but his victory in Hong Kong confirmed he is still the man when he really gets the bit between his teeth, and I think he’ll be hard to beat in Bolton.

Past winners Robertson and Allen always feared

O’Sullivan might have to overcome dual Champion of Champions winner Neil Robertson in the semi-finals if he’s to go all the way after what appears a favourable opening group, and you can never underestimate the Australian who won a couple of ITV events last term and clearly places great importance on them. 

Robertson played really well to reach the last four of the Northern Ireland Open recently and given that was the first ranking event he has contested all season, he is entitled to be sharper for his workout in Belfast. A prolific tournament winner, his turn will surely come before too long. 

I’m sticking with O’Sullivan, but a semi-final between him and Robertson would be something to savour. They put on a real show when they met in Hong Kong not so long ago and hopefully O’Sullivan can come out on top again. 

The man who beat Robertson in Belfast was Mark Allen, who was quite magnificent in storming to back-to-back Northern Ireland Open titles in front of his home crowd. For a man who once struggled to perform in front of so much home support, Allen really is making the Waterfront Hall something of a fortress and is proving unbeatable if he gets to the weekend.

It’s great to see Allen going well again. He’s a class act on his day, though he hasn’t always helped himself with some of the decisions he had made. The one that springs to mind was, having just run out a brilliant winner of the Champion of Champions in 2020, he decided to change his cue the following week. 

That was a call I always found strange, but I think he’s making better decisions nowadays and I hope we’ll see a more consistent Mark Allen from now on. The signs are good, anyway. 

Nightmare draw for Trump 

That’s not to say I’d be backing him next week, though. Allen finds himself drawn in a horrible group along with defending champion Judd Trump, who might have bagged the worse first match of the whole draw in getting Luca Brecel. 

Brecel won the Scottish Open in tremendous style close to a year ago, he beat Trump in the Tour Championship and in this very event in 2017 when the Belgian stormed to a 4-0 victory. Brecel can take down anyone on his day and both Trump and Allen will have their work cut out to reach the semi-finals. 

Whoever does progress from that group will have certainly earned it. But that’s what this tournament is all about – the best of the best, and Sunday’s winner will have had to do it the hard way, be it O’Sullivan or anyone else. 

It should be a great week and with snooker coming thick and fast in November, owing to the football World Cup being held in December this year, there is so much for snooker fans to look forward to. 

I’m betting that O’Sullivan is thinking along the same lines, and here’s hoping he can put on a show in a tournament he has always saved his best snooker for.

Ronnie hasn’t been anywhere near his best in ranking events so far but he has won the Hong Kong Masters. His victory over Neil Robertson in the semi-finals, from 4-1 down, vindicates Neal’s opinion. At this stage of his career, and having nothing whatsoever to prove after reaching his “Seventh Heaven” last May, finding the motivation for every event must be difficult.

Now here are some personal thoughts … for what it’s worth (not much).

Group 1

I actually expect Mark Allen to win this group. Joe Perry looks badly out-of-form recently and I can’t see him causing Mark any problem. Luca Brecel is not the most consistent player but he always seems very up for it when he plays Judd Trump and he thrives on the big stage. Judd himself hasn’t been at his best so far this season. Group final: Allen v Brecel, with Allen going through to the SFs

Group 2

Robert Milkins can be very dangerous and he’s a very heavy scorer when on form. That said he plays an open game and that will suit Ronnie. If Ronnie is motivated and in decent form, he should win that match. Zhao Xintong hasn’t been at his best so far this season, but he should have too much for Mink, who, simply, doesn’t score heavily enough. Group final: Ronnie v Zhao, with Ronnie progressing to the SFs.

Group 3

Neil Robertson, on paper, has a very easy opener; although Fan played well yesterday I can see only one winner here. The Kyren Wilson v Ryan Day match is much more difficult to predict: neither have been at their best recently. I favour Kyren based on temperament and resilience under pressure. Group Final: Neil Robertson v Kyren Wilson, Neil coming out the winner.

Group 4

Mark Selby should beat Lee Walker confortably although both might take their time over it… Neither John Higgins, nor Hossein Vafaei have shown their best form so far this season. If Hossein manages to get the best start of the two, I believe he will win this match. John Higgins has looked very low on confidence in recent times. Group Final: Mark Selby v Hossein Vafaei, Mark Selby progressing to the next stage.