KEY NIGHT FOR VAN BARNEVELD AND THORNTON IN BELFAST
RAYMOND VAN BARNEVELD and Robert Thornton face a crucial double-header when the Betway Premier League visits Belfast on Thursday, as the world's top two ranked players, Michael van Gerwen and Gary Anderson, prepare to face off at the SSE Arena.
2014 Premier League champion van Barneveld and reigning World Grand Prix champion Thornton could find themselves out of the running following the 11th league night of the season in Belfast.
Thornton currently sits nine points adrift of the Play-Off places with six matches remaining, while van Barneveld is six points away from a top four spot.
Thornton opens Thursday's action against Peter Wright before returning to the stage to face van Barneveld later in the evening, having kick-started his season by picking up a win and a draw when he doubled up in Liverpool last month.
"It's a really important night for me but I've already shown this season that I can rise to the occasion when the pressure's on," said Thornton. "The two matches I had in Liverpool brought the best out of me and hopefully that will be the case again on Thursday. I can't afford to look any further than playing Peter Wright though and I won't even think about the game with Barney until after that. If I can take a win against Peter it will set me up nicely for my second match."
Van Barneveld, meanwhile, is looking to draw inspiration from his brilliant form in the second half of the 2015 season, when he was unbeaten in the second half of the campaign as he claimed a Play-Off place.
"Robert and me are struggling and I have to win every single match from now on to maybe get into the top four," said van Barneveld. "I realise that maybe isn't possible but I showed last year that I can. I'm not nervous, I'm focused on both matches. If I play relaxed darts then I'm always good. Last year I had a point less when I survived Judgement Night, six points, and I tried to do my best each week and funnily enough the results came. If I can win both matches on Thursday, which I can, then maybe it's all open."
The Dutchman kicks off his challenge on the night against current league leader Phil Taylor, who the Dutchman defeated on the season's opening night in Leeds, and he added: "I think he will be sharp on Thursday, of course he would love to beat me but I'm playing to survive. Phil is already quite certain of a place in the top four and I have to fight to get there along with four or five other players."
Taylor has not been defeated in the Premier League since his 7-2 reverse to van Barneveld two months ago, and sits three points clear of Michael van Gerwen as he travels across the Irish Sea.
"I know Barney's going to play well because he's a wounded tiger," said Taylor. "He's a cracking player and he puts his heart on his sleeve and tries his hardest; he puts everything into it."
Looking back on his opening night defeat, Taylor added: "I think Ray's done me a favour, it gave me the kick I needed. At the time I was playing really well, I thought I was going to thrash him but I didn't and he beat me. I wasn't playing well enough and I had to get back on the practice board - if it wasn't for him I could have been miles in front [in the table]!"
The night in Belfast also sees two of the three players locked on 13 points in the league table, Adrian Lewis and James Wade, face off on a big night for their Play-Off hopes, while reigning champion Gary Anderson is looking to bounce back from a defeat to Taylor when he faces Michael van Gerwen.
"Last week against Phil didn't go to plan but I always enjoy playing Michael," said Anderson. "He's pushing everyone else at the moment and he's been brilliant this year, there's no doubt about that He's a fantastic player and what he's doing on the dartboard at the moment is tremendous - but people have got to remember that Phil Taylor's been doing this for 25 years or so. Michael's been doing this for two or three years so he's got a long way to go yet."
World number one van Gerwen has seen Anderson claim both the World Championship and Premier League titles in the past 18 months, but the Dutchman rejects suggestions he is looking to prove a point when the sport's top two ranked players meet in Belfast.
"Why do I need to make a statement? I think after the World Championship I'm playing better darts at the moment," said van Gerwen. "I won the Masters, the UK Open, I'm higher than him in the rankings and I just need to do my own thing. It's fantastic that he won those trophies because they are the most important ones, but at this moment it's not about the past, it's about the future."