Defending champion Luca Brecel looked set to defy expectations after building a 6-3 lead over qualifier David Gilbert in the opening session of World Championship first round match at the Crucible.

The Belgian headed back to Sheffield having spent much of the last 12 months enjoying the rewards of his stunning 2023 success and made it clear he felt qualifier Gilbert, a semi-finalist in 2019, would start as favourite.

But two centuries and two further breaks over 70 helped put the 29-year-old in full control ahead of their resumption on Saturday evening, when Brecel requires four more frames to seal his place in the last 16.

Cazoo World Snooker Championship 2024 – Day One – The Crucible
Luca Brecel was in good form on his Crucible return (Richard Sellers/PA)

With a solitary ranking quarter-final to his name in an indifferent campaign, Brecel came back with arguably the lowest expectation of any defending champion and seemingly little hope of breaking the so-called ‘Crucible curse’ of first-time winners who have failed to retain their crown.

A bout of illness in the build-up to the tournament hardly helped instil enthusiasm in Brecel’s chances but he threatened to make a mockery of those expectations by enjoying an explosive start, zapping in a break of 91 in the opener then briefly sniffing a maximum in the next as he settled for a sizzling total clearance of 134.

Brecel had the first chance in the third frame but ran out of position on 24, enabling a grateful Gilbert to step in with a break of 70 to get on the board and it was a similar story in the next as the qualifier hauled himself level at 2-2.

Cazoo World Snooker Championship 2024 – Day One – The Crucible
David Gilbert was struggling to keep pace with defending champion Luca Brecel (Richard Sellers/PA)

Brecel, insistent that he feels no pressure this year having already achieved his lifetime goal, duly responded with 73 and 104, and when Gilbert was punished for missing an easy black in the next to fall 5-2 behind, it looked bleak for the British player.

Gilbert responded with a superb break of 115 to narrow the deficit but failed to take his chances in a marathon ninth, which Brecel finally ground out to ensure he will return for the concluding session with a three-frame cushion.