The 22nd staging of the PDC World Championship gets underway at Alexandra Palace on Thursday evening with the highest prize money on offer being complemented by arguably the most open tournament in its history.
The eight majors contested during 2014 have been shared between six players, which only adds to the belief that the PDC Tour is the most competitive that it has ever been, and with the last five finals seeing as many as seven different finalists, there are sure to be plenty of surprises during the 72-man competition.
Below, Sports Mole previews the tournament by taking a look at the form of the big-hitters as well as attempting to predict who will prevail over the New Year.
Despite going into the tournament as the defending champion and world number one, Michael van Gerwen is only considered as the second favourite with bookmakers to register back-to-back crowns at Alexandra Palace, and it's hard to disagree with that belief with the Dutchman failing to reach the final of his last three television events.
Van Gerwen won the European Championship and World Grand Prix during October but his recent form will be a concern and only recording three-figure averages in three of his past eight major ranking contests is proof that the 25-year-old is still some distance away from establishing himself in the sport in the same manner as Phil Taylor has done over the past two decades.
Due to his past success at the event, Taylor has been given the status of pre-tournament favourite but he, too, has work to do if he is going to add another major title to his collection. He has enjoyed victories at the World Matchplay and Grand Slam of Darts - the two tournaments widely considered to the most illustrious behind the World Championship - but his quarter-final defeat to Gary Anderson at the Players Championship Finals would have been a reminder that he must produce his 'A' game if he is to become world champion for a 17th time.
Anderson is arguably in the form of his life and after breaking his major duck in Minehead, the shackles should be off as he targets a second appearance in a world final while Adrian Lewis, who suggested that he was nearing a return to form at the end of November, is always a danger over a set-play format but must overcome a tough section of the draw to make inroads in London.
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Van Gerwen starts with a meeting with Joe Cullen, a player who is making his fifth successive appearance at Alexandra Palace without ever progressing past the first round, but the Yorkshire thrower has proven in the past that he is capable of upsetting the number one seed. Providing he comes through his first two matches, the draw hots up for Van Gerwen with Terry Jenkins or Justin Pipe waiting in round three and Dave Chisnall or Robert Thornton likely to be his opponents in the quarter-finals.
Taylor will play Jyhan Artut in the last 64, a player who has defeated Wayne Mardle at the event as well as coming within a leg of beating Anderson, but it's the ideal tie for the 54-year-old who will be motivated to start strongly to set the benchmark for potential matches with Mark Webster and Kim Huybrechts before the last eight.
The draw could have been kinder to Anderson, who has Jelle Klaasen, Christian Kist, Wes Newton and Kevin Painter all lurking before the quarter-finals, while Lewis could find himself playing Raymond van Barneveld in the third round before meeting James Wade or Stephen Bunting.
The likes of Wade and Bunting are going to top anyone's list of potential winners outside of the top four in the PDC Order of Merit but it's impossible to completely rule out a whole host of names who have made a name for themselves on the big stage over the past three years.
Wade hasn't capitalised on his appearance in the World Grand Prix final but he is still consistently producing the averages that will make him a threat to anyone, while Bunting, the 2014 Lakeside world champion, has already broken into the world's top 32 despite competing on the PDC Tour for less than a year.
The draw has thrown up the possibility of the two players facing each other as early as the second round, and whoever prevails from that tie will believe that they can beat anyone remaining in the tournament. With Premier League places at stake, though, the pressure is on both men to have an extended run in this tournament.
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When taking current form into consideration, last year's runner-up Peter Wright has been handed a favourable draw and has the potential to make an impact from the quarter-finals onwards, but Van Barneveld will need to rediscover some form to progress past Rowby-John Rodriguez and Jamie Caven before a meeting with Lewis awaits in the third round.
Mervyn King, Chisnall and Thornton can't be discounted but they will have to avoid any slip-ups in competitive quarters of the draw before being considered as a threat to cause an upset in the latter stages.
Despite potentially having to overcome a number of testing examinations during the early rounds, Van Gerwen and Anderson should be well prepared to progress through to the semi-finals while one of half-a-dozen players are in contention to make the last four in the opposite section.
However, despite having a tricky route through to the semi-finals, Taylor should have plenty left in the tank to produce his best darts in the latter stages and with his best performances coming in traditional majors where he has preparation time before each match, it's hard to back against him winning another world crown.
Either Van Gerwen or Anderson are likely to have something to say about that, but with the desire of Taylor stronger than ever after his early exit last year, he should be a force to be reckoned with over the Christmas period.body check tags ::