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COMMENT: Stage set at Ally Pally for World Darts classic
THE first major sporting event of 2013? Look no further than Alexandra Palace this evening for the final of the PDC World Darts Championship.
Some people might decry darts' status as a sport, but there is no denying the success or popularity of a tournament that has rapidly become a key component of the festive sporting schedule.
This year's instalment has been the best yet, played out in front of a stream of raucous capacity crowds at Ally Pally and featuring a quarter-final line-up that boasted seven of the world's top eight players plus five-time world champion Raymond van Barneveld.
Tonight's final pits the greatest player the world has ever seen, 15-time world champion Phil Taylor, against the most in-form player from the second half of 2012, Dutchman Michael van Gerwen.
It is 'The Power' against 'Mighty Mike', the sorcerer against the apprentice, the veteran master against the up-and-coming force. It promises to be a belated Christmas cracker.
Taylor starts as marginal favourite, although his odds reflect his standing in the game rather than his performances in the last two World Championships, in which he failed to progress beyond the quarter-final on either occasion.
This time around, he started slowly, but his quarter-final demolition of Andy Hamilton suggested he was back to something approaching his best, and for much of Sunday's semi-final victory over van Barneveld, he exuded an authority and dominance that reflected his status as an all-time great.
However, at 5-1 ahead, Taylor missed two darts at double top to claim a facile victory, and while he eventually triumphed 6-4, the sight of van Barneveld rattling off three sets on the trot exposed a fragility that has rarely been evident in the world number one.
To his credit, Taylor regrouped to get the job done, but his refusal to shake his opponents' hand during an unseemly post-match altercation lost him a few fans and underlined just how tense things had become. Wobble like that against van Gerwen, and Taylor could struggle.
Van Gerwen has been no stranger to mental fragility himself in the past, but after struggling to live up to the potential he displayed when he burst onto the scene as a teenager, this has been the season when the 23-year-old Dutchman has finally justified the hype that has long surrounded him.
His success at this autumn's World Grand Prix represented a major step forward in his career, and he has suddenly discovered a level of consistency that enables him to make the most of a scoring power that has long been as good as anyone's in the game.
His semi-final victory over James Wade was sensational, containing arguably the greatest two-minute segment in the history of the World Championships.
Not only did van Gerwen become the second player in this year's tournament to hit a nine-dart finish, the Holy Grail of the darting world, he also came within a throw of recording two successive perfect legs, with only the final attempt at double 12 catching him out.
Even Taylor was impressed with that, and given that van Gerwen has averaged close to 100 in every game he has played at Ally Pally, the world number one can expect to be in the unusual position of having to chase a large number of legs tonight.
Van Gerwen will almost certainly match Taylor for scoring, but will his doubling hold out and will he be able to resist the mental stranglehold his opponent tends to exert in the biggest matches?
Darts is a thrilling sport to watch because the mental battle is so intense and so obvious. Up there on stage, there is nowhere to hide. Tonight we will discover if van Gerwen is strong enough to cope.