Sunday 15th March
Atano III, San Sebastian
OLAIZOLA II – MENDIZABAL II beat BENGOETXEA VI – BELOKI 22-16
As the curtain fell on the last semi final match of the 2009 championship, San Sebastian seemed to resound with song. This was not the passionate swell of sound from the home of Real Sociedad, nor was it the celebrated Orfeon Donostiarra choir in rehearsal; indeed, it was not homegrown song at all. Oier Mendizabal was born in San Sebastian but he had seemingly brought a fan club from his adopted home of Hernani, all of eight kilometres to the south of the Gipuzkoan capital, for the noise came from the upper reaches of Atano III, where the local Azeri dance was in full cry. Their municipal hero was in the final and they meant to let everyone know it. Whether a similar contingent had made the trip from Goizueta in honour of Aimar Olaizola was harder to tell but it was the Navarrese master striker who turned this game in the blink of an eye. Aimar, or more precisely, his fabled left arm, ensured the champions a chance to defend their crown.
Facing Aimar and Oier in the melting pot of Atano III was a pair who might, but for Martinez de Irujo, already have booked their place in the final. Oinatz Bengoetxea and Ruben Beloki had the chance to qualify outright last weekend but lost out to a combination of errors and an opponent on fire after a game which had balanced on a knife edge. The first phase of this match, their second and final chance, must have given them an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu; not even a hair’s breadth could split the two sides. In a proverbial war of attrition, point was traded for point in a grinding stalemate of long and gruelling points. It took 476 strikes of the ball to reach 11-11, after the pairs had found themselves locked together, all square at 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10 apiece. This period was characterised by the duel of the two defenders. Bengoetxea knew he could count on the best defender in the tournament thus far in Beloki and set about attacking Mendizabal with abandon but to no avail; Oier played an excellent match last week against Berasaluze VIII and Begino and here stepped up to yet another level. He and Beloki traded blow after blow, sending the ball like a rocket to the frontis from seemingly impossible positions. Neither seemed willing or likely to crack.
The early battle between the forwards was every bit as absorbing, pitting as it did two outwardly very different characters into conflict. Bengoetxea is like a whirlwind on the fronton, never resting, always bustling both in play and in respite. Seeing that Mendizabal would not break, the manomanista champion threw all his attacking power at the door of Olaizola. Particularly impressive was the low skidding ball which took the score to 2-2 and a pair of hook winners, the second of which sent Aimar sprinting headlong into the a cameraman. Olaizola, in contrast, appears as the clinical destroyer. Only occasionally does he let his emotions show through his facade of control. While Bengoetxea looked fit to burst with fight, Olaizola displayed a quieter but no less obvious determination, hitting a succession of winners to nullify those of his rival. Bengoetxea looked to have the slight edge in their early fight, although the score remained in deadlock.
With the score at 11-11, the game moved into a new and different phase which spelt danger for the defending champions. A combination of two winners from Bengoetxea, and an error apiece from Oier and Aimar meant that the pair in blue found themselves four points adrift. Although no sense of panic was evident in their demeanour, something clearly had to be done. Step forward Aimar Olaizola. Although brilliant at times, Aimar has rarely been at his exalted best in this tournament. The Goizuetan was dangerously close to pulling out of the Cuatro y Medio championship in December owing to a painful right shoulder and the fact that he stayed and went on to win it is testament to both his wide armoury of skills and his determination. He may however have paid the price, having played with tendonitis in that same shoulder ever since. His right arm is therefore not as potent a weapon as it should be and has in all likelihood contributed to his rather less than vintage form. However, his left arm, his most feared attribute, worked at Atano III like the hammer of Thor and there was nothing Bengoextea could do to stop it. In a masterclass of hooks, peppered with drops and smashes, Aimar ripped the prize from the hands of his oppoents and beat them into submission. While he cut loose, the pressure on Beloki told as he made four errors, a blot on an otherwise textbook game. When Bengoetxea struck too high, the game was up, and Goizueta, like Atano III, surely burst into song.
So, we return to Atano III on March 29th for a final which promises much. Juan Martinez de Irujo and Fernando Goni, both of whom have been in white hot form of late, await the defending champions who will do everything within their power to contain and better them. If Oier Mendizabal can maintain his stellar run, the defensive battle will be enthralling and any match which pits Aimar against Irujo is enough to set the juices racing. Who has the nerve to strike for glory on the biggest of all stages only time will tell.
Scoring sequence: 1-0, 1-3, 3-3, 3-5, 6-5, 6-7, 7-7, 7-8, 10-8, 10-10, 10-11, 15-11, 15-15, 16-15 and 16-22.