VAN GERWEN AND CROSS TO CLASH AS UNIBET PREMIER LEAGUE OPENS IN DUBLIN
THE 2018 Unibet Premier League season begins at Dublin's 3Arena on Thursday as reigning champion Michael van Gerwen and new World Champion Rob Cross clash in the first of 16 weeks of action.
The sport's widest-reaching event will visit Germany for the first time this season as Berlin's Mercedes-Benz Arena joins Rotterdam Ahoy in hosting a European night of the event.
However, all eyes will be focused on a sold-out 3Arena for Thursday's opening clashes as the new-look Premier League - which features four debutants amongst six changes from 2017 - begins with five huge matches.
The night's headline contest sees world number one Van Gerwen beginning his bid to win a fourth Premier League in six years against new superstar Rob Cross.
Cross defeated Van Gerwen in a classic World Championship semi-final a month ago before going on to claim the Alexandra Palace title by defeating Phil Taylor in the decider.
Van Gerwen - who won last weekend's Unibet Masters to prepare for the Premier League in perfect fashion - has dismissed talk of being on a revenge mission when he steps on stage in Dublin.
"It would be nice to win on Thursday and I'm looking forward to this Premier League," said Van Gerwen. "I don't look at the game as revenge because we're going to play each other so many times.
"I want to put the pressure on Rob straight away on Thursday and continue my form from last weekend, and I'd like to pick up two points here in front of this phenomenal crowd.
"There's a lot of new players but that will make it more fun for everyone. In my opinion, I think these guys deserve to be here based on last year - they all stood up and showed their class."
Cross' remarkable rise has seen him move up to third in the world in only a year as a professional, and the 27-year-old is excited by the prospect of his Premier League debut.
"Last year was a bit of a whirlwind, a learning curve all the way through, and this year will be no different," said Cross.
"Usually I deal with it and I'm going to enjoy it. The challenge of going out every week in the Premier League I think is excellent. It's a great opportunity to show what I can do.
"I've never experienced the Premier League so it's going to be a little bit new and it will take a couple of weeks to settle in."
2017 Premier League runner-up Peter Wright - who missed six darts to defeat Van Gerwen in last year's final - is looking to get his campaign off to a winning start against debutant Gerwyn Price.
"I'd love this year to be in that last four and then go from there, but I'm really looking forward to it," said Wright. "I've got to be more ruthless and I've got to be a little bit more nasty on stage.
"There are a few new faces and they've got big boots to fill so it will be interesting to see how they handle it. They deserved to be picked and it's going to be good."
Price lost out to Wright in the 2017 UK Open final, and the Welshman is looking to enjoy his elevation to the Premier League stage.
"I've played well for the last 18 to 24 months and got myself into the top 16 so I think I deserve to be here," said Price. "I'm not here just to take part, I'm here to try and win.
"I'm looking forward to it, I'm not scared of any opponent and I think I've got a good chance. I've shown before that I've got the game, it's just that I'm a little bit inconsistent at times."
2014 Premier League champion Raymond van Barneveld will play Northern Irish debutant Daryl Gurney - October's World Grand Prix champion in Dublin - with the Dutchman on a high after reaching Sunday's Masters final in a superb opening to 2018.
"I'm really happy with my game," said Van Barneveld. "My set-up is good, I had a good run in the World Championship and the Masters was brilliant.
"Daryl is in the top five in the world and he proved that by lifting the trophy the last time we were here in Dublin, so I'm warned. I'm really looking forward to it - this is the Premier League, where the best of the best play."
Two-time Premier League winner Gary Anderson takes on Michael Smith, who returns to the tournament after previously competing in 2016.
"It's great to see Michael back in the Premier League," said Anderson. "He's such a talent and he works really hard.
"I'm sure he'll get revenge over me on stage one day, because I've got the better record. It would be great to start the season with a win, though, because everyone wants to get past the first nine weeks.
"There are some classy players in it this year and it's going to be exciting."
Australia's Simon Whitlock also returns to the Premier League stage, having reached the 2012 final in one of five previous appearances, as he takes on Austria's Mensur Suljovic, the Champions League of Darts winner who is making his Premier League debut.
"It's the best ten players in the world and I'm here and it's brilliant for me," said Suljovic. "I'm ready, a little nervous, but it will be very hard."
Van Gerwen is the 8/11 pre-tournament favourite with sponsors Unibet, with Cross the 7/2 second favourite, Anderson rated 6/1 and Wright the 7/1 fourth favourite.
First Night's Matches:
Mensur Suljovic v Simon Whitlock
Gary Anderson v Michael Smith
Daryl Gurney v Raymond van Barneveld
Michael van Gerwen v Rob Cross
Peter Wright v Gerwyn Price