VAN GERWEN & SMITH HEADLINE CAZOO PREMIER LEAGUE'S OPENING NIGHT
Michael van Gerwen will begin his bid for a record-breaking seventh Cazoo Premier League title with a clash against World Champion Michael Smith on a blockbuster opening night of this year's tournament at The SSE Arena in Belfast on Thursday.
Reigning champion Van Gerwen will open his defence of the title against Smith in a repeat of last month's epic World Championship final at Alexandra Palace, which saw the St Helens star land a sensational nine-darter en route to glory.
This year's tournament will again see eight of the sport's top stars contesting 16 mini-events during the season, with each league night comprising quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final over the best of 11 legs.
Van Gerwen and Smith's showdown will headline Thursday's opening night in Belfast - having faced off in front of the iconic Goliath shipyard crane during their pre-event media commitments on Wednesday - and the Dutch icon is aiming to kick off his campaign in perfect style.
"Me and Michael [Smith] always have great games," said Van Gerwen, who has made the final in eight of his previous ten Premier League appearances.
"I've lost to him a few times but I've beaten him loads of times. I feel good, I feel comfortable and I hope I can produce something special.
"I think I have played really well over the last 12 months. Of course I could have won the World Championship, but outside of that, I had a phenomenal year.
"You always need to be confident. My main goal is to finish in the top four at the end of the season. It's going to be tough but you need to be ready, otherwise you shouldn't be here!"
Over 8,000 fans will be in attendance at The SSE Arena to see two of the sport's biggest names locking horns for the first time since their famous tie at Alexandra Palace.
Smith is still riding the crest of a wave since his World Championship exploits, and is aiming to add the coveted Premier League crown to his growing haul of titles.
The 32-year-old was runner-up to Van Gerwen in the 2018 season, and he's bidding to reaffirm his status as the sport's premier player during this year's extravaganza.
"I know Michael [van Gerwen] is going to be up for it because he wants to prove a point, and hopefully the crowd get another fantastic game," declared the world number one.
"I want to keep performing. I know people want to beat me even more now because I'm the World Champion, but I'm just there to compete and win games.
"I always look forward to the Premier League. Apart from the World Championship, this is the pinnacle of the sport.
"You have eight of the best players in the world going at each other every week - what's not to like?"
The opening night of the 1 Million Pound tournament will also see Nathan Aspinall make his Premier League return against Gerwyn Price, who landed two nine-darters on a famous night in Belfast 12 months ago.
The Welshman achieved perfection against Michael van Gerwen and James Wade to claim glory on Night Three last year, and he's hoping for a similar outcome in Thursday's curtain-raiser.
"It was an amazing night. I was just in the zone," reflected Price, who also hit a spectacular 170 checkout to defeat Smith prior to his nine-dart exploits.
"I remember that I told James in the practice room [before the final] I was going to hit another one.
"It was a special feeling. The crowd were absolutely fantastic, and hopefully I can hit two nine-darters again in Belfast this year!"
Price will take on Aspinall in his quarter-final on Thursday, with the Stockport star preparing to make his third Premier League appearance, having also featured in 2020 and 2021.
The former UK Open champion enjoyed a stunning revival last year following a serious wrist injury, featuring in televised finals at the World Grand Prix and Grand Slam of Darts to reclaim a place in the world's top ten.
Aspinall is aiming to continue his superb Premier League record on his return, having finished runner-up on debut before succumbing in the semi-finals 12 months later.
"What a way to return to the Premier League!" reflected Aspinall, who has finished third in the league phase in his previous two campaigns.
"I've got quite a good record against Gezzy, and he's probably the opponent I enjoy playing the most. I love his raw emotion on stage, because I show that too.
"I love the Premier League, and to be able to play in front of 8,000 to 12,000 fans every week, it's a dream come true and I cannot wait to get on that stage now.
"From where I came from last year with my injury, to be back involved in the pinnacle of the sport, I'm very proud."
Elsewhere, newly crowned Cazoo Masters champion Chris Dobey will make his first Premier League appearance as a full-time participant, having featured as a contender in 2019 and 2020.
Dobey was included in the eight-player line-up after lifting his first televised title at last weekend's Masters, and he faces a tough assignment against two-time World Champion Peter Wright in Belfast.
Wright - a runner-up in 2017 - claimed his first TV title in over 12 months at the Nordic Darts Masters a fortnight ago, so both players come into Thursday's opener brimming with confidence.
"I haven't played Peter for a while. I know it's going to be tough, but I've got to show everybody what I'm made of," said Dobey, also a World Championship quarter-finalist last month.
"It's a great feeling to be involved in the Premier League. This is where everybody wants to be. I'm playing with the elite now.
"I'm looking forward to getting started tomorrow and hopefully I can prove to everybody that I deserve to be here."
Thursday's action will begin with a meeting between 2021 champion Jonny Clayton and Dimitri Van den Bergh, who is back amongst the Premier League fold following a 12-month hiatus.
The Belgian enjoyed a terrific 2022, winning a brace of World Series of Darts events and reaching semi-finals at the World Matchplay and World Championship, which sealed his return to the sport's biggest roadshow.
Clayton meanwhile, became only the fourth player to finish top of the Premier League table in last year's revamped competition, and the Welshman is now embarking on a third consecutive campaign amongst the sport's elite.
The Cazoo Premier League's opening night in Cardiff will be followed next Thursday by the visit to the Cardiff International Arena, and travels across the UK as well as to Dublin, Rotterdam and Berlin across the 17-night season, which culminates in May's Play-Offs at The O2 in London.
The 2023 Cazoo Premier League will be broadcast live on Sky Sports in the UK & Ireland, through the PDC's worldwide broadcast partners including DAZN, Viaplay and VTM, and on PDCTV for Rest of the World Subscribers.
First Night's Quarterfinals:
Dimitri van den Bergh v Jonny Clayton
Michael Smith v Michael van Gerwen
Nathan Aspinall v Gerwyn Price
Peter Wright v Chris Dobey