In this, the first week of the Basque cider season, Sebastian Gonzalez and Abel Barriola produced play from the finest barrel: crisp, sparkling, and sometimes fruity, but with just the right amount of sharpness. Perhaps this is a sporting analogy too far, but nobody squeezed into the somewhat compact seating area at Sahatxaga can be in doubt of their scintillating form. This was their third win from three matches in the championship so far and they have yet to be troubled. In contrast, Asier Olaizola, himself a cider proprietor, and Patxi Ruiz were on a mission to secure their first win, but the Asegarce pair were no match for the steamrollering progess of their rivals. They need a win, and quickly.
Asier and Patxi took a rather tame opening point when Gonzalez miscued down the wall. One hopes they made the most of their supremacy for they were not to lead again. The first half of the encounter was characterised by a string of errors from Patxi Ruiz, who at various times struck the ball long, wide and short. The Aspe pair operated like clockwork in attack but these mistakes were of the Navarrese defender’s own making. In contrast, Barriola, his opposite number in defence, was as solid as a rock; it was the thirteenth point before he showed any sign of frail humanity whatsoever. Barriola’s imperious defence in turn provided Gonzalez with a magic carpet from which to attack, and attack he did. Far from contributing to an unmitigated disaster, Asier Olaizola did show some moments of immense skill but he never quite seemed able to turn promising mid-point play into winners and too often missed from close in. Gonzalez on the other hand went for the jugular with two unreachable gantxos, placed with pinpoint precision, several deft touches down the left which more than once set Asier on a collision course with the wall, and a string of exquisite drop shots.
Even when one side is dominant sporting encounters are rarely black and white; Patxi Ruiz did improve somewhat as the game progressed and showed himself up for the fight as he scrambled in all directions in search of the ball. At 15-8 to the Aspe pair, an out of place Asier had Patxi sprinting the full length of the fronton like a greyhound. He even earnt a pat on the back from Barriola for his efforts. Metronomic though they seemed, Gonzalez and Barriola made occasional careless errors; they are of course mortals. In truth however, it was almost impossible to imagine them panicking or falling apart, even for a moment. Their shot making was superior and so, it must be said, were their tactics. Patxi and Asier may have had more leverage of the game if Barriola had allowed himself to be manipulated. The defender from Leitza hardly found himself at the back of the fronton essentially because his opponents seemed incapable of pinning him down and forcing him there. This situation meant that the Aspe partnership could, for much of the game, use Barriola as an auxiliary attacker, which placed Patxi under even more pressure as he attempted to defend.
So, Barriola and Gonzalez have another easy win in their bag. Who, one wonders, can stop them? The other tournament favourites have proved erratic thus far and while the road to the final is a long one, this pair must now be feared above all others. Olaizola and Patxi Ruiz surely will not progress to the semi finals, unless they can pull off a massive salvage mission, but they will still play for their pride. On their day one feels that they could have so much more to give. Everything has gone wrong for them so far but perhaps that day will come.
1-0, 1-1, 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 2-4, 2-5 , 2-6, 2-7, 2-8, 2-9, 3-9, 4-9, 5-9, 5-10, 6-10, 6-11, 7-11, 7-12, 7-13, 7-14, 7-15, 8-15, 8-16, 8-17, 9-17, 9-18, 9-19, 9-20, 9-21, 9-22