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Michael Smith
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World Darts Championship: Can Michael Smith successfully defend his Ally Pally title?

1983 world champion Keith Deller analyses Michael Smith's recent form and looks at what the defending champion needs to do to repeat his Alexandra Palace heroics this time around.

World Darts Championship

Can Michael Smith retain his World darts Championship?

It’s one of the big questions being asked as we edge ever closer to the start of the annual PDC showpiece.

We all know he can win the tournament and retain his title, but, for me, it’s more about will he replicate the achievements of Adrian Lewis and Gary Anderson by becoming only the third player to follow-up their maiden Ally pally success with another?

If you were to force me to answer that question right now then I’d have to say no. I just feel there are other players in a better place and playing a better game.

But that’s not me ruling the 11/1 shot out entirely. 

We all know how good a player Michael Smith is. He can hit astronomical averages and, in full flow, there are few players on the planet more prolific at nailing that treble 20 bed.

But he’s not heading to London in anywhere near the same form as he was 12 months ago, and that’s the BIG difference for me.

By and large, the players who arrive in the capital with a few good runs behind them, more often than not, are those who are there as genuine contenders after Christmas.

Michael was sensational last year and was the deserving champion, and, for many, he was the expected champion given the form he had shown over the year, culminating in that maiden televised title at the Grand Slam of Darts on the eve of the worlds.

He was the man to beat, regardless of the fact that Michael van Gerwen and Gerwyn Price were shorter odds in the betting.

Now, I’m not saying Michael has no form at all as we look ahead to this year’s tournament, because he has reached a semi-final recently, at the World Grand Prix. But that aside, there’s not been a great deal else to write home about.

He will have been very disappointed to have been eliminated from the Grand Slam at the group stages, especially as the defending champion, and the manner of his defeat in the first round of the Players Championship Finals against Richard Veenstra was a real cause for concern.

But what are the reasons behind Bully Boy's dip in form?

There will be those that say his averages have dropped, which they have, and there will be those that point to his finishing, which isn’t quite at the same level it was when Michael was right on top of his game. But, I don’t feel that is down to just a dip in form. 

You may not know this but Michael has changed his darts this year, and for everything that he, and other players will tell you about changing darts, doing that, especially when you have been winning regularly, can prove to be incredibly problematic.

Yes, Michael will say that he is scoring massive averages and performing exceptionally well in practice, but the proof in the pudding comes on the big stage; the televised stage. It’s all well and good doing it on the practice board, but it counts for nothing there.

That’s where Michael has been nowhere near his best in recent times; in those TV tournaments, and I actually believe that a big part of that stems from switching manufacturers.

Of course, we all know that he can still go out and hit a 105 average, but the moments that you need to have that full trust in your darts is in those real pressure moments, and Michael clearly had that trust this time last year.

Remember he was 3-1 down in a race to four against Martin Schindler in the third round of last year’s World Championship, and seemingly on the cusp of elimination. But he turned the tide, upped the ante and ended up winning the game.

If that same situation was to arise this time around, I’m really not sure we’d see the same outcome.

Financially, and commercially, I am sure there are many benefits to making the change he has, but from a professional perspective, for me, it won’t have been beneficial to him – certainly not in the short term.

There will be those that argue that lots of players change their darts, and I won’t argue with that. Look at Peter Wright for example, he could honestly rock up to a tournament and lift the title by playing with a different set in each match.

But Michael, and the vast majority of other players, simply can’t do that. It takes time for things to click and, as I say, to really establish that trust in those darts, particularly in those big moments.

A World Championship winning mentality...

All of that said however, Michael will turn up with real hope of reclaiming his title – he is the defending champion after all, and one thing he didn’t have last year which he now has is that know-how of winning on the biggest stage.

He had twice previously reached finals but had lost on both occasions; to MVG and ‘Snakebite’. Now he has tasted success there, he will be able to count upon that in moments of need, and in moments where he needs a little bit of inspiration.

On paper, Michael - 9/4 to reach the last four and 4/1 to reach a fourth world final - looks to have a nice draw which should enable him to ease into the tournament.

Kevin Doets or Stowe Buntz shouldn’t present him too many problems on the opening night and neither should any of the players he is in line to tackle in the third round.

He needs to start off well though for me, and not just labour to a victory. A 102 / 103 average would set the tone for him, and I think he really needs to make that statement early on given there are so many other players who will be scoring heavily and hitting averages in excess of 100 in those early rounds.

Michael is a confidence player, he is a momentum player, and if he can start off with a bang, then he has a chance, there’s no doubt about that. But don’t forget he is there as the champion and he has that big target on his back.

Players will want to claim the scalp of the defending world champion, irrespective of whether he is the favourite to go the full distance this time around or not. 

I know first-hand what it’s like to have players desperate to claim that scalp on the back of winning the tournament in 1983 – I lost my first game as the defending champion a year later, so it’s not easy, believe me.

But we have also seen others successfully defending their first world titles. I was Adrian Lewis’ manager when he did that just over a decade ago, and we’ve also seen Gary Anderson do likewise since then as well.

Only time will tell whether Michael can follow in their footsteps and deliver back-to-back titles too.

World Darts Championship

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