Monday 11 December 2023

van Barneveld, Szaganski, Kantele

Barney is back for another shot at the title, still seeded primarily on account of his Grand Slam semi final in 2022, backed up by a situationally up and down season in 2023 - steady enough on the floor to get back into all but the Grand Slam (where he lost in the quali to Boris Krcmar), but not doing a great deal of anything on TV once he's got into the events, pretty much detailing to perfection where his game is at in that it's enough to be in and around the top 32, but a fair bit off being able to continue to progress back up the rankings. Looking at each format in turn - the Players Championship was relatively productive, albeit without any ultra deep runs - winning his board on eight occasions, but not reaching the semi final at all and only pushing through to the quarter finals three times. Good, solid, steady production, can't argue with that. The European Tour was somewhat similar, showing a good record of getting to the events before the Matchplay, making nine out of the ten that were scheduled, and showing a good record of winning the opening game, but generally losing to the seed. Raymond would push through to the final day twice, whitewashing Andrew Gilding in Sindelfingen but then losing to Luke Humphries, and then in Trier, Barney went a fair bit better, reaching the quarter final with wins over Michael van Gerwen and Ryan Searle, only narrowly losing to Joe Cullen. As stated, these results were enough to get van Barneveld back into the majors after an absence of a few years, but results were not brilliant. UK Open - got a tricky draw with Rob Cross, got to a decider, but didn't come through. Matchplay - outplayed by an inspired Ryan Searle. Grand Prix - lost a tight one to Martin Schindler. Europeans - drew Michael Smith and heavily outplayed there. Players Championship Finals - drew Chris Dobey, was able to pick up three legs but that's all he could manage. Never drawing a truly elite player, but at the same time never being able to get the win - that's more or less where Raymond is right now. Probably good enough to win his opener, but realistically probably not good enough to go beyond that point.

Radek Szaganski is a name that's been around for a while, having had some minor BDO successes a decade ago but fading into obscurity a bit until gaining a tour card in 2022. It was looking like he was going to be another case of popping into the PDC for a couple of years and then popping back out again, but a great result at the back end of the year has pushed him into the worlds when it looked for all the world that he'd miss out, and has given him a realistic chance of retaining his tour card into 2024. The qualification was pretty much entirely through the Players Championship - Radek wasn't able to make it into a single European Tour event, so it's rather remarkable that he has finished that high up the rankings. The season didn't start fantastically by any means - losing six of his first ten Pro Tour games, only getting the one board win and having three second round defeats, along with a one and done UK Open run, beating Kciuk but losing to Doets, but signs first appeared in event 11, when the Pole reached the semi final, defeating the likes of Chris Dobey and Joe Cullen, being left on a two darter for the match by eventual champion Rob Cross. Szaganski would then go on a bit of a run where it was taking good players to beat him - de Sousa, Price twice, Wade, Noppert, Dolan, Gurney, Barney, Schindler, Ratajski, Rydz and Gilding in the next twelve events, adding another quarter final run in the process, but it would be October where he really left his mark. On a very damp day in Barnsley, Radek won his first PDC title, defeating Dimitri van den Bergh and Jonny Clayton amongst others to face fellow surprise finalist Connor Scutt, who Szaganski beat 8-5 to claim the title, averaging above 90 throughout the entire event. That booked his slot here, and he would capitalise on that new confidence with a strong finish, winning an average of three games a time in each of the last three Players Championship events. This late run also booked Radek a spot at the Players Championship Finals, where he knocked out Ian White in a bit of a scrappy game, but could do nothing against a rampant Luke Humphries. This tournament is very important for Szaganski - he's currently in a Matchplay spot, but unless he reaches the third round here (maybe the second if some players hand cards in, but realistically we need round three) he'll lose his tour card, which would be a real shame given the strength of his 2023. He certainly has his chances.

Marko Kantele is returning for a fifth appearance here, the veteran Finn first playing in 2009 but having been absent for the last three seasons - at least on the PDC side, he appeared in the BDO worlds so long ago that he lost to Simon Whitlock, this being in the season where potential second round opponent Barney won his fourth BDO title. Marko comes back off of a fantastic season on the Nordic and Baltic tour, winning an event in each of the first four weekends, finishing with near double the prize money of the top player not to have qualified for the worlds. A former tour card holder in 2019-20, Marko tried to regain his card in January, would win through stage one by right on day two, but fail to make any real progress in the second stage, not getting a point and finishing in the bottom half of the table. This gave Marko the opportunity to play the Challenge Tour if he wanted, but he just played the one weekend in Milton Keynes in August, and if it weren't for him playing in the Modus event soon after that and likely choosing to make a longer stay of things to cut down on travel costs, he may not even have played those five events. He was typically only losing to decent, known players in those five Challenge Tour events, but didn't make a real impression, so it was left to the Nordic tour, where he made his mark with the highest average of the tour, a clear point ahead of nearest challenger Daniel Larsson, although the standard on that circuit is such that 87 was good enough for Kantele to top that table. Marko additionally used the Nordic qualifiers to get onto the European Tour on several occasions - losing to Willie O'Connor in Leverkusen, Keane Barry in the Netherlands and Ross Montgomery in Sindelfingen, before finally getting a win over Liam Maendl-Lawrance in an infamous match in Trier, with some legs taking so long that it would be a perfect backdrop for a sequel to that "how many nine darters can you hit in the first leg of Martin Adams and Tony Fleet", taking over fifty minutes to play just eight legs. Needless to say a 6-1 loss in the next round to Luke Humphries was a tad quicker. Kantele also partnered Paavo Myller in the World Cup, and did what was expected in a group containing Belgium and China, and he did play the WDF Finnish Open, getting as far as the last sixteen but losing there to eventual finalist Jonas Masalin with the remaining field not looking unbeatable. Marko will put up a fight, but I'm not sure that he's going to be able to score heavily enough to keep up with someone in Radek's current form, and this could be a bit of a grind to watch potentially.

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