- Premier League Darts Preview
Taylor aiming for seventh heaven
It's one of the most anticipated nights on the darts calendar. In front of a bumper crowd at London's O2 Arena on Thursday night, defending champion Michael van Gerwen, six-time winner Phil Taylor, 2011 champion Gary Anderson and five-time world champion Raymond van Barneveld will battle it out to be crowned 2014 Premier League champion. Four of the most talented players to ever grace the world stage are ready, but who will walk away with the £150,000 top prize?
Taylor is not the only player to have rediscovered some form through new equipment. Following a barren 2013, which saw him plummet out of the world's top 10, Gary Anderson was fortunate to be given a wildcard spot in this year's tournament.
However, there is no doubt the Flying Scotsman has proved his worth. Armed with new darts, Anderson appears to have conquered his doubles phobia and is the form man ahead of Thursday's final, having won three of his last five matches to cement a place in the final four.
Two of those crucial wins came against Van Barneveld and Van Gerwen, who both beat Anderson in the first round of fixtures earlier this season. However, finals night is a completely different beast to competition in the 15 preceding weeks and Anderson is the one who currently rests on the crest of a wave.
And let's not forget he won the title at Wembley in 2011. Four months after he suffered World Championship final defeat to Adrian Lewis, Anderson became the first player to win the Premier League in their debut appearance, apart from the competition's inaugural showing in 2005.
If he can produce the same sort of form that catapulted him into the world's top four, there is no doubt he can add a second Premier League title to his CV. Expect more fireworks from the Scot and do not be surprised if you see him shock the defending champion in their semi-final.
Out of form
Unlike Anderson, Raymond van Barneveld has not enjoyed a pleasant end to his Premier League season.
The Dutchman failed to score a victory in his last three matches and laboured to a second place finish, level on points with both Taylor and Anderson.
His last two losses came against final night rivals Van Gerwen and Anderson and the five-time world champion has still to beat Taylor on a Premier League stage.
That does not bode well for Barney in what will be his second successive semi-final against Taylor at the O2. In truth, this is a competition the 47-year-old has yet to conquer; Van Barneveld has reached finals night on six occasions, but has yet to make it past the semi-final stage.
Ones to watch
While punters will have paid to watch their idols take to the oche in what will surely be a pulsating night of darts, there is another final that has to be settled on Thursday evening. The PDC World Youth Championship final precedes the Premier League final and will showcase another two up-and-coming youngsters looking to impress on the global stage.
Michael van Gerwen twice lost the youth final - against James Hubbard and Arron Monk - before he took the darts world by storm to claim his first senior world crown in January.
Keegan Brown and Rowby-John Rodriguez are the pair who will battle it out for the honour of being named world youth champion; although whoever fails will no doubt take heart from Van Gerwen's incredible rise to the top. Michael Smith, who won this final 12 months ago, has shown bags of talent on the big stage and even had the audacity to topple Taylor at the PDC World Championship in December.
Taylor's new darts doing the business
There was no hiding Phil Taylor's dramatic switch of sponsors in February - the Power even spoke to EPSN about his decision to change weapons. However, questions were raised when he failed to register a win in the first five weeks of the season.
Things appear to have changed for the better. He admitted that, following his change from Unicorn to Target darts, it would take time to settle and get used to his new arrows, with the possibility of a few tweaks in his equipment far from distinct.
However, Taylor is no longer throwing metallic duds. An 11-match unbeaten run helped him achieve his place in the final four, where he will be aiming for a seventh Premier League title.
Taylor is over his shock World Championship loss to Michael Smith in December. He's back to hitting nine-dart finishes on the PDC Pro Tour and, coupled with his hunger to bring Van Gerwen down a notch, is once again close to his frightening best.
The resurgence of Gary Anderson
The Scot recently revealed his struggle with the mental side of the game over the past two years, while his dramatic loss of form saw him plunge down the world rankings.
Anderson has had it tough. In 2012, he lost his brother Stuart and father Gordan in a short space of time. Understandably, his focus suffered and he could not replicate the form which saw him reach the final of the 2011 World Championship and win the Premier League in the same year.
In 2012, he suffered a health scare during an event in Germany when he suddenly lost sight in his left eye. Similarly, long-standing issues with his doubles provoked doubts that he would challenge for a major title again.
However, Anderson has proved his critics wrong. Always a heavy scorer on the dartboard, he has worked tirelessly in practice to banish his doubling issues. Becoming a father in April seems to have settled his stage form and, on his current showing, Van Gerwen will need to provide something special to get past him.
Will we see a nine-dart finish?
All four of these players have hit a televised nine-dart finish during their professional careers. In the 2010 final against James Wade, Taylor made history when he became the first player to land two perfect legs in a single match.
This event is due a piece of magic. No nine-dart legs have been seen this season (so far) and none were hit during the 2013 campaign. Simon Whitlock was the last player to achieve darts' Holy Grail in the Premier League, during his 2012 semi-final against Andy Hamilton. It's about time another piece of tungsten perfection should grace this tournament and Thursday's Play-Offs night could see it come to fruition.
Facts and stats
Phil Taylor has been crowned Premier League champion six times out of nine tournaments. James Wade (2009), Gary Anderson (2011) and Michael van Gerwen (2013) are the only other players to win the title.
Taylor was unbeaten in his first 44 Premier League matches, a run which lasted started in 2005 and was eventually ended by James Wade in 2008.
The Power is the only player to appear in all 10 editions of the tournament. Since its inclusion to the PDC calendar in 2005, 25 players have tasted Premier League action.
The most 180s made in a single Premier League match was 11, shared by Gary Anderson and Simon Whitlock in their 2011 clash.
This year's edition saw a record crowd of 11,000 fans watch week seven's action at the First Direct Arena in Leeds.
Michael van Gerwen is narrow 5/4 favourite with bet365 to retain his Premier League crown, with Phil Taylor a close second at 6/4. Gary Anderson is a tantalising outright prospect at 7/1, but the bet of the night has to be Taylor to hit the most 180s in his semi-final with Van Barneveld. The Stoke ace is priced at 7/5 to outscore his old rival on the maximum count.
For the first time in his Premier League career, Phil Taylor goes into a finals night as a slight underdog. The pressure is well and truly on Van Gerwen to show last year's victory, alongside his World Championship triumph, is not just a flash in the pan. Taylor has over two decades of professional experience and, every time he's been faced with adversity, has silenced the critics in devastating fashion. We believe he'll not only regain his crown - but will do it with a nine-dart finish along the way.