In the second part of a series looking ahead to the 2018 bwin Grand Slam of Darts, ALEX MOSS previews Group B…
GROUP B (Michael Smith (8), Raymond van Barneveld, Krzysztof Ratajski, Adam Smith-Neale
Michael Smith (8)
PDC Order of Merit: 9
2018 Best: 3 tournament wins (Shanghai Masters, Players Championship 7, UK Open Qualifier 3)
Grand Slam Best: Semi Finals 2015
Michael Smith heads up a very tasty-looking Group B and perhaps still thinking about those five missed darts to win the World Series of Darts Finals in Vienna on Sunday night.
The world number nine came agonisingly close to winning his first big TV title, before it was snatched away from him by the man of the moment James Wade.
There is no time for Smith to be licking his wounds, though, as he comes to Wolverhampton in one of the toughest groups on paper, including a five time world champion and the last two winners of the World Masters.
Looking at how 2018 has fared for the Bully Boy, it will be a year which will conjure fond memories. A first TV title in Shanghai and two other TV finals. This season Smith has arrived at the top level and no one expects him to leave any time soon.
Three years ago, Smith did not even qualify for the Grand Slam. This weekend he is the eighth seed and one of the contenders to lift the title a week on Sunday.
Raymond van Barneveld
PDC Order of Merit: 14
2018 Best: 1 tournament win (World Cup of Darts)
Grand Slam Best: Winner 2012
Six years have past since Raymond van Barneveld edged out Michael van Gerwen in the final of the 2012 Grand Slam, one of Barney’s last big triumphs.
Since that win, the Dutchman has gone on to win the Premier League in 2014, but another big singles title has since eluded him.
An ever present at the Grand Slam, van Barneveld has only failed to get through the group stages twice, in 2011 and 2013, and it is clear from last weekend that Barney still has the game to compete with the best.
Another win over van Gerwen, in the quarter finals, in Vienna showed us the best of van Barneveld, but he is a player now who appears to be winding down towards the end of his career.
Can he win another major title before he calls it a day? Of course he can, and coming through this group could just give him the belief to go on a deep run in Wolverhampton.
PDC Order of Merit: 60
2018 Best: 3 tournament wins (Players Championships 21, 22 and UK Open Qualifier 6)
Grand Slam Best: Debut
There may have been a little bit of fortune behind Krzysztof Ratajski’s inclusion in this year’s Grand Slam, with Corey Cadby’s continued visa problems forcing him to withdraw and opening up the spot for the Pole.
But very few will disagree that Ratajski’s presence is not warranted in Wolverhampton. Last year’s World Masters winner recently scooped up both titles on the final Players Championship weekend of the season.
It took his tally of PDC titles for the year to three, that despite not even having a tour card, but now ranked 60th on the PDC Order of Merit, it looks like he will not have to try again at Q-School next year in order to get one.
Ratajski has been dealt one of the tougher groups but he is a player in form and will fancy his chances of getting through to the knockout stages.
He has beaten van Barneveld both times in their two meetings on the Pro Tour earlier this year, and also beat Smith on the way to his second Players Championship title.
BDO Ranking: 81
2018 Best: 1 tournament win (World Masters)
Grand Slam Best: Debut
When Rob Cross won the PDC World Championship at the start of this year, some pundits likened the achievement to when Leicester City won the Premier League.
Adam Smith-Neale’s victory in the World Masters last month surely eclipses that. The 25-year-old had limited big stage experience, but came through a tough draw beating the number one, two and three seeds to win the title.
And he did it by playing some fantastic darts too. Averages of 92, 90, 96, 93 and 96 in his five games on the stage took him to a maiden major title and if he brings that level of performances to Wolverhampton, then you cannot rule him out.
Yes, it’s a tough group to get out of. But the short race to five legs could work in his favour. Smith-Neale has quality, we’ve seen that in the brief time we’ve seen him on stage so far.
Whether he can adapt straight away to the bright lights and razzmatazz of the PDC big stage is another question. The experience will help him a great deal.