Preview: PDC World Matchplay

Sports Mole previews the 21st staging of the PDC World Matchplay, which begins on Saturday at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool.

Sixteen-time world champion Phil Taylor will be hoping to win his seventh successive World Matchplay crown when the Blackpool event gets underway on Saturday evening.

The Stoke-on-Trent thrower has won a remarkable 14 titles at the Winter Gardens, but the 53-year-old is likely to see his dominance in the North-West threatened by main rivals Adrian Lewis and Michael van Gerwen, while a number of other contenders will fancy their chances of lifting the trophy.

Below, Sports Mole assesses the main challengers, while also attempting to predict who will emerge victorious in the final on Sunday, July 27.

Main contenders

Despite never reaching the final in Blackpool and failing to make the semi-finals in four of his last five tournaments, PDC world champion Van Gerwen goes into the event as the marginal favourite ahead of Taylor and Lewis, but he will have to rediscover his 'A' game to win this competition.

The Dutchman may have been hampered by a recurrence of an ankle problem, but narrow defeats to Jamie Caven and Benito van de Pas over the past few weeks would not have filled the 25-year-old with much confidence. With the in-form Steve Beaton his opponent in the first round and Terry Jenkins possibly lurking in the last 16, Van Gerwen needs a strong start to gain some momentum ahead of the latter stages.

Taylor has been handed a favourable encounter against Darren Webster, whose best performances have come away from the television screens, but sterner tests could await the world number two with Justin Pipe or Michael Smith a second-round opponent and Robert Thornton potentially being his last-eight opposition.

Phil Taylor of Britain reacts as he takes part in the PDC World Championship darts final against Michael van Gerwen of the Netherlands on January 1, 2013© Getty Images

Lewis's best display at the Winter Gardens came in last year's high-scoring final with Taylor, but the two-time world titlist has struggled to put a run of victories together since winning the UK Open earlier this year and he could find it tough after being placed in a quarter of the draw that is stacked with big names.

2007 winner James Wade will be expecting to go deep into the tournament after winning in Gibraltar last month, and with Andy Smith and the victor of the match between Brendan Dolan and Richie Burnett lying ahead in the first two rounds, the left-hander could comfortably get through to a last-eight tie with Simon Whitlock or Raymond van Barneveld.

Dark horses

Many of the 32 players that line up at the Winter Gardens can claim to have had a positive start to 2014, but it's the likes of Gary Anderson, Van Barneveld, Peter Wright and Stephen Bunting who will have the most realistic ambitions of making an impact in Blackpool.

A disappointing 18 months for Anderson resulted in him plummeting down the PDC Order of Merit, but five triumphs in the first half of the year, as well as a semi-final showing in the Premier League, have made the Scot a genuine contender for the Matchplay crown but he will have to continue his current form to have a chance of progressing through a tough quarter.

Stephen Bunting of England in action during his first round match against Jim Widmayer of USA during one of the BDO Lakeside World Professional Darts Championships at Lakeside Complex on January 07, 2014 © Getty Images

The same can be said of Wright, the 2014 PDC World Championship runner-up, and Bunting, the 2014 Lakeside champion, who face each other in the tie of the first round. Whoever comes through that tussle will be confident ahead of their clash with Anderson or Caven.

Van Barneveld will also be involved in an eagerly-anticipated showdown with Dutch compatriot Vincent van der Voort, and the five-time world champion will have to be at his best to overcome a player who won the Austrian Open just five weeks ago.

However, if 'Barney' can reproduce the game that saw him lift the Premier League title, he could prove hard to beat over a long format.

Prediction

This staging of the World Matchplay is arguably the most competitive yet, and it's tough to form a conclusive opinion on who will emerge as the victor at the end of the tournament.

Despite being placed in the tougher half of the draw, the safe bet seems to be that Taylor will progress to the seventh successive final providing that he can find the consistency that has made him synonymous with glory on the Winter Gardens stage.

The recent results of Van Gerwen has left the top half of the draw wide open, and if the fast-throwing world number one shows any weakness, a player like Wade or Van Barneveld could capitalise and make the final.

However, whoever qualifies for the final two is going to find it tough to halt Taylor, who has won his last 30 matches in Blackpool, and it would come as a surprise if the Staffordshire thrower doesn't win his 15th Matchplay crown.

Michael van Gerwen of the Netherlands in action during his quarter-final match Clinton Bridge of Australia against during day two of the Sydney Darts Masters on August 30, 2013
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