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Friday, 18 January, 2019

Red-hot Higgins ready to take the fifth at the Crucible

Resurgent Williams may have to give best in veterans' battle

John Higgins on his way to semi-final victory over Kyren Wilson
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The final
BBC & Eurosport, 2pm Sunday

John Higgins looks the bet to wrap up a fifth Crucible crown 20 years after his first with victory over Mark Williams in the Betfred World Championship final.

Williams admitted after his 17-15 semi-final victory over Barry Hawkins that Higgins is the favourite and after the sponsors' early quote of 4-6 about the Wizard of Wishaw winning a fifth world crown was quickly snapped up, favourite-backers will have to make do with 8-13.

That could and should still be a good price. These two members of the Class of '92 gang - Higgins is aged 42 and Williams is a year older - know each other's games well.

Higgins, who was 12-1 fourth-favourite before the tournament started, leads Williams 31-20 in their personal series. There have also been four drawn encounters, two in the now-defunct Premier League and a couple more in the Championship League.

As regards their three Crucible meetings, all of which were in the semi-finals, Williams had the better of it in their early days. He won 17-10 in 1999 and 17-15 in 2000 (after trailing 13-8), while Higgins reduced his personal series arrears when triumphing 17-14 in 2011 (after trailing 9-5).

It's 15 years since Williams last reached the world final. Back in 2003 the Welshman defeated Ken Doherty 18-16 in a high-quality affair but Williams struggled to get over the winning line.

Williams, who was a 20-1 chance 17 days ago, is a more relaxed character these days. But the concluding exchanges in Saturday's victory over Barry Hawkins featured a higher-than-average number of mistakes, so we may see plenty of errors from the Cwm cueman late on if he manages to keep it close against Higgins.

Higgins, who led Mark Selby 10-4 in last year's final, was powerless to prevent the world number one reeling him in and prevailing 18-15. That defeat would have been a huge body blow to one of snooker's greatest players. Selby at his best has taken the game on to a new level, but the fact that Higgins captured just five of the last 19 frames contested suggests the Scot was performing below his peak in Sheffield in 2017.

However, the Scot has been playing better this season than last. He was concerned that he may not have the fitness required to come through the 17-day slog and add to his four Sheffield crowns.

But save for a terrific effort from Judd Trump in the last eight in a match which ended 13-12, Higgins has almost always been in control in his matches. The moment he lost that control was when Trump levelled at 12-12, but even when Higgins trailed the Bristolian 7-3 the Wizard of Wishaw always looked confident of fighting back and defeating his opponent.

The Trump encounter would have taken something out of Higgins' energy banks, but it wasn't enough to prevent him dominating Kyren Wilson in their semi-final clash. And let's not forget Higgins had an early finish in his 13-1 victory over Jack Lisowski in round two.

Williams, meanwhile, looked jaded after edging out Hawkins just before midnight on Saturday. He is expected to pick himself up sufficiently to play a competitive role in the final - his scoring has been excellent.

But even after wins in the 6 Red World Championship, Northern Ireland Open and German Masters, Williams still may not have the consistency required to match Higgins, who is playing his best snooker in years.

Bookmakers ask Higgins, who has been successful this season in the Indian Open, Welsh Open and Championship League, to make light of a 2.5-frame deficit on their handicaps. But there looks little point going down that risk-laden avenue when the outright price represents decent value anyway.

With Higgins having posted seven centuries in this year's tournament and Williams weighing in with ten, the Welshman could be value at evens to post the first ton of the best-of-35-frames final.

But while Williams is still in dreamland having reached the final, for Higgins the experience is more of a reality. The likelihood is that he won't get many more chances to draw level with Ronnie O'Sullivan on five world titles and it will be a massive disappointment if he comes up short in the final two days of the tournament.

For spread betting punters, despite posting the tournament's highest break of 146 Higgins has kept a lid on his heavy scoring for much of the tournament, so anyone looking to buy or sell his ton-ups should tread carefully. Williams is making more centuries these days than he did in his pomp, but fatigue could play a part after the Welshman's mentally draining semi-final.

Punters need to find a safer market on which to trade and that could mean a high break bet. Both players are capable of landing big compilations, so getting long at 134 could carry little downside. 

J Higgins
3pts 8-13 Betfair, Betfred, Paddy Power
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at 134 Sporting Index

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Higgins may not get many more chances to draw level with Ronnie O'Sullivan on five world titles and it will be a disappointment if he comes up short
E.W. Terms
Sky bet