Friday 12 February, Urretxu
GONZALEZ – LASKURAIN beat BENGOETXEA VI – IBAI ZABALA 22-18
Oinatz Bengoetxea and Ibai Zabala journeyed to the Gipuzkoan town of Urretxu on Friday in desperate need of a result. Little has gone right for the pair involving Bengoetxea in this championship. The 2008 Manomanista champion is now on his third partner, with Beloki and then Otxandorena falling to injury. The latest in the string was Ibai Zabala who was thrown into the deep end in week six to attempt to help secure a much needed second victory. Bengoetxea, perhaps unsettled by the changes thrown his way, has rarely played his best pelota in this competition, retaining all his drive and perseverance but lacking in bite. Could the real Oinatz stand up to be counted? Sebastien Gonzalez and Aritz Laskurain were looking for their third victory here and had themselves had a topsy turvy tournament, beating their opponents here 22-9 in the second week before being crunched by Olaizola II and Mendizabal II two weeks later. Despite their inconsistency, the Aspe pair started as favourites; could they live up to this billing or could Oinatz and Ibai stop the rot?
The match started in a tight and nervous fashion as the pairs each tried to set out their stall. Bengoetxea rushed into an attempted crosscourt winner in the first point only to push his effort wide. The first four rallies, after which the scores were tied at 2-2 saw two further unforced errors, one apiece from Ibai Zabala and Gonzalez. From this early point, Gonzalez and Laskurain started to edge ahead of their rivals, and they were never overtaken, despite constant pressure. Although he managed eight winners in the course of the match, Bengoetxea seemed ill at ease, perhaps the cumulative result of a championship where he has never been at his brilliant best for more than a point here or there. There certainly were some flashes of brilliance from him in this game, such as his crosscourt bullet on 7-11, his gantxo on 13-17 and several clever drops into the corner. However, these high spots were tempered by some hurried and tense play which led to unnecessary errors. This was apparent in his attempted dos paredes on 4-6, where he seemed so desperate to make the shot and grab the point that his direction and poise quite deserted him. Tension may have been the cause of his falta on 6-9, for he must surely have realised the necessity for a win. His usual positive and strident demeanour was strangely absent for much of the match.
Ibai Zabala carried a wealth of pressure on his shoulders as the latest in a line of partners for Bengoetxea. As a win was so crucial for his side, he had no time to find his feet in the championship. He played well at times, showing impressive defensive skills and an ability to field the long ball with interest, but he committed too many errors. Some, like the ball which struck the wall high on 6-10, were either careless, or the product of nerves, or both. Neither Gonzalez nor Laskurain had stellar games but they were considerably more consistent, more measured and more composed than their opponents. Gonzalez actually scored fewer winners than Bengoetxea but he also let less through his grasp. Laskurain, who never looks happy with his performance even when he has cause to be, was solid and dependable for the most part and certainly more in control of his game than Ibai Zabala.
Despite the air of malaise hanging over the performance of the Asegarce duo, they never lost their ability to fight, and this is to their great credit. For most of the game, their opponents held them at a distance of three or four points, but much to the delight of the sizeable crowd, they mounted a comeback, sparked by an excellent skidding shot down the wall by Bengoetxea on 14-18. Their run would take them to within one point of parity at 18-19 by way of a Bengoetxea airez, a Laskurain error and a comedy of miscommunication by the red pair. However, a total miss by Ibai Zabala restored order for the eventual victors, who capitalised on two more errors, the first forced by Gonzalez, to take the tie 22-18, a close result which belies their control of the match.
Bengoetxea, and whoever his future partner may be, are now in dire straights, and can in all likelihood wave goodbye to the semi finals. In contrast, Gonzalez and Laskurain are still in the fight. If they wish to be true contenders they will have to maintain their best level over a series of weeks, something they have been unable to do thus far, but the competition is still very open as far as qualifying berths two, three and four are concerned. Their next match, against Saralegi and Apraiz, will in all probability go their way but in the final week they face the formidable challenge of Olaizola II and Mendizabal II, who pulverised them in week four. We are in for a fascinating fortnight.
Scoring sequence: 1-0, 1-1, 1-2, 2-2, 3-2, 5-2, 5-4, 7-4, 7-5, 9-5, 9-6, 11-6, 11-8, 12-8, 12-9, 14-9, 14-10, 15-10, 15-12, 17-12, 17-14, 18-14, 18-15, 19-15, 19-18, 22-18.
Ibai Zabala: in at the deep end
Image from: Noticias de Alava