Michael van Gerwen has won the World Darts Championship in each of the past two years and his grip of the world No 1 ranking has never been stronger.
Yet a hat-trick of consecutive titles at Alexandra Palace is far from a sure thing - we look at the main contenders to topple the Dutchman…
‘The Flying Scotsman’ is the most recent player to hold a victory over Van Gerwen at the World Darts Championship, having won their semi-final meeting in 2015 before going on to collect the trophy himself.
It is that victory three years ago that means current world No 3 Anderson is Van Gerwen’s biggest threat this time around.
Anderson also beat Van Gerwen in the 2015 Premier League final just months after defeating him in the World Darts Championship final - Anderson actually won two Premier League matches between them within the space of a few weeks during this stretch.
Van Gerwen has a 29-15 winning record against Anderson yet, in the context of his dominance over everybody else, that statistic is relatively favourable to his Scottish rival. Factoring in significant victories in major tournament finals, Anderson has shown he is the likeliest candidate to topple Van Gerwen again.
Anderson has won two of their past five matches although their head-to-head record in major competitions is less flattering in recent years. Anderson is without a win in their past seven matches at majors (spanning the Worlds, Premier League and World Grand Prix).
This dates back to the 2015 Premier League final, which indicates Van Gerwen has dramatically improved since tasting two stinging defeats against Anderson three years ago.
The only player on the circuit with a winning record over Van Gerwen is Taylor, who will hang up his darts at the conclusion of this year’s Championship. Taylor has won 34 matches to the Dutchman’s 26, with two draws, in their head-to-head career meetings.
Crucially, Taylor has carried his ability to defeat Van Gerwen through the years into modern times. Taylor has won six of their past nine matches, which goes back less than two years, although Van Gerwen prevailed in their most recent meeting in the Grand Slam of Darts semi-final.
Taylor’s record in beating Van Gerwen in major ranked events is striking. He has won four of their 10 meetings in major tournaments (still a losing record but in the context of Van Gerwen’s rivals, it makes Taylor far likelier to beat him than anybody else).
Taylor has interestingly won all three of their World Darts Championship matches albeit none more recently than 2013, when Van Gerwen’s averages at the top tournament soared from around 96 to 102.
Yet Taylor has won two of their past four matches at majors, all in 2017, winning at the Matchplay and in the Premier League, proving that his likelihood of beating the brilliant Dutchman is better than anyone’s.
The colourful ‘Snakebite’ has risen up the rankings to No 2, behind only Van Gerwen. But their head-to-head record, and a closer look at those numbers, suggests Wright is not the likeliest opponent to end Van Gerwen’s reign at the World Darts Championship.
Wright has won 11 but lost 47 of their career meetings (with two draws) but his main concern is that those victories did not arrive at major tournaments. Of their 10 matches at the Worlds plus other ranked majors, Wright has won zero.
This precedes the 2014 World Darts Championship final when Wright, then an up-and-coming prospect, surprisingly reached the last hurdle but fell to Van Gerwen. More recently, Van Gerwen won this year’s Premier League final and World Grand Prix final against Wright.
Yet Wright is showing obvious signs of improvement that have led to his ranking of No 2. Between 2010 and 2013 he averaged 94 across ranked major tournaments, the 14th best in the field. But in the past two years that average has soared to 100, the fifth best.
His lack of a landmark victory over Van Gerwen should set alarm bells ringing but Wright, justifiably the second-best player in the world, is surely too good to be left waiting forever.
The ace in the pack might be a relative newbie to the top level. Van Gerwen has spoken in glowing terms of Cross since surviving his challenge at the recent Grand Slam of Darts, and having previously beaten him to win the European Championship.
Perhaps his ascent into fans’ consciousness has been brewing for a long time. Over the past two years Cross has averaged 100 in major ranked tournaments, level with Anderson and only behind Van Gerwen - an astonishing return for a comparatively new player with little big-game experience.
To underline his improvement, between 2013 and 2015 Cross didn’t average 90 and wasn’t in the top 50 players for this metric.
Cross has lost eight of nine matches against Van Gerwen, all since March 2016 and all of the past six, but there is reason for optimism.
Cross is still No 20 on the PDC order of merit yet his fast rise, and fearlessness in matches against Van Gerwen, suggests he is a threat.
Raymond van Barneveld
Barney, who also hails from the Netherlands, was Van Gerwen’s darting idol when the younger man was coming through the ranks. Ever since, even when his world ranking hasn’t hinted at an obvious rivalry, Van Barneveld has enjoyed success over Van Gerwen.
Van Gerwen has won 31 matches to Van Barneveld’s 18 in their head-to-head meetings but that stat, even though it favours the younger Dutchman, also proves this conflict is far from one-sided.
Peer at those numbers closer and Van Barneveld’s ability to keep parity with the world’s best player becomes obvious. He has won four out of nine matches at ranked majors, where it counts the most. Admittedly the first of these wins was in the 2009 World Matchplay then the 2012 Grand Slam of Darts final, before the Van Gerwen we know today had fully evolved.
But Van Barneveld’s significant victories over Van Gerwen do translate into more modern matches, as well. The older man won the 2014 Premier League final then a last-16 tie at the 2016 World Darts Championship, which Van Gerwen avenged in last year’s semi-finals.
Van Barneveld’s overall average through the years at the World Darts Championship has remained between 97 and 99 but Van Gerwen’s explosive improvement is the reason he has dominated the past two tournaments.
Van Gerwen improved his average from 98 between 2012 and 2014 to 104 in the three years since, and Van Barneveld has naturally been restricted to winning one of their past five matches.
It's a tall order.