TOP TWO LOCK HORNS AS BETWAY PREMIER LEAGUE COMMENCES
THE world's top two players, Michael van Gerwen and Gary Anderson, will clash as the 2017 Betway Premier League season begins in Newcastle on Thursday night.
The ten-player tournament, which will run through to May 18 on 16 successive Thursdays, will begin in front of a 7,000 sell-out crowd at the Metro Radio Arena.
The five matches in Newcastle will be headlined by the high-profile clash between the top two players in the sport, as World Champion and reigning Premier League champion Van Gerwen faces Anderson.
The Dutchman has succeeded Anderson as both Premier League champion and World Champion inside the past year, and also took glory last Sunday when the pair met in the Unibet Masters final in Milton Keynes.
Van Gerwen, though, is in confident mood as he begins his title defence against a respected rival.
"We're the best two darts players in the world at the moment and as long as we're in that position there will be a great rivalry between us," said Van Gerwen.
"We always want to perform well against each other and don't like losing to each other either. I love winning and I'm focused on keeping doing that. The Premier League isn't about one week, it's about 15 or 16 weeks and you have to perform well every week."
Anderson is also relishing his duel with Van Gerwen, admitting that the Dutchman's success in the past 12 months has inspired his challenge for silverware in 2017.
"The Premier League's a fantastic tournament, it's a hard slog but I'm looking forward to it," said the 2011 and 2015 champion.
"Michael got the win on Sunday but I'm not far away. Once I sort the mistakes out I'll be making him worry. I've known him for a long time and he's playing now like he always promised to, he's at the top the tree at the moment and it's our job to knock him off."
Six-time Premier League champion Phil Taylor begins his 13th - and what he expects to be his final - season in the tournament against Dave Chisnall on Thursday.
Taylor was the runner-up to Van Gerwen in last year's final, and said: "I'd love to win the Premier League again.
"It's a massive tournament now, and to me it's probably harder to win than the World Championship because you can win that in a couple of weeks but this is four months. It's a special event and I'm excited about it, and I can't wait to get playing."
Adrian Lewis, the 2011 Premier League runner-up, is up against Raymond van Barneveld as the world number four begins what he hopes can be a successful season.
"I love playing Barney and we've had some crackers over the years so I'm looking forward to it," said the 32-year-old.
"I've got Barney in the first game and then you know you're coming up against another top player the next week, and the week after that. You've put yourself in that position to be shot at, you're in the top eight in the world. I think I'm going to have a good year this year. I've got to take the rough with the smooth and enjoy it, instead of thinking about the negatives I'm looking at the positives and I think that will be the turning point."
2009 Premier League champion James Wade opens the season against Kim Huybrechts, the top-ranked Belgian who returns to the tournament after previously competing in the 2015 season.
"I'm very excited," said Huybrechts. "This is the biggest stage you can be on as a darts player and the biggest tournament so I'm very happy to be here. I've got two years' more experience than the last time I played in it so I'm looking forward to it. I learned a lot playing in front of those crowds in amazing venues and it was a massive experience for me."
World number three Peter Wright also faces a player who is returning to the Premier League line-up for a second time, with Dutchman Jelle Klaasen having previously competed in 2009.
"I've been waiting a long time for this, eight years, and it's a bonus for all the work I've been doing in the last two years," said Klaasen. "I think I deserve this, I've played well and I hope the Premier League will make me better. I think I can do it every week but it's different because you're focusing on just one game and it's going to be a challenge, but I'm looking forward to it."
Michael van Gerwen begins the season as the 8/13 pre-tournament favourite with sponsors Betway, with Gary Anderson at 9/2 as the second favourite, Peter Wright rated 10/1 and Phil Taylor 12/1 as he bids for a seventh Premier League title.
Adrian Lewis is a 25/1 chance to win his first Premier League, with the trio of James Wade, Dave Chisnall and Raymond van Barneveld 33/1 ahead of the outsiders Jelle Klaasen (66/1) and Kim Huybrechts (80/1).
First Night's Matches:
Kim Huybrechts v James Wade
Raymond van Barneveld v Adrian Lewis
Phil Taylor v Dave Chisnall
Gary Anderson v Michael van Gerwen
Peter Wright v Jelle Klaasen