Sunday 18th April, Eibar
MARTINEZ DE IRUJO beat BARRIOLA 22-12
Manomanista Group A
The world of sport has been kind to Eibar in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the Bizkaian town hosted the queen stage of the Tour of the Basque Country, which finished atop its famous Arrate climb, and cheered Samuel Sanchez to victory. The win was important for home team Euskaltel Euskadi as it represented their first of the season in a year where performances are vital to secure future sponsorship. On Sunday, in a different sport, another man sought to pull off his first big victory of 2010 in Eibar; Abel Barriola had not played in the Manomanista Championship for two years due to injury and this was a red letter day for the man from Leitza. All eyes were on him as he took on reigning champion Juan Martinez de Irujo in a game which was seen by many as an exam, a test of his recovery, his fitness and his mettle. How would this former champion, so much missed, fare on his return to the biggest stage of all?
The crowd at Astelena was not what one could call a mighty throng, but there existed a palpable sense of occasion nonetheless. The cheer which greeted the protagonists in the headline match was infinitely louder than anything aimed at the players in the doubles encounter which preceded it, and the attendant pressure manifested itself in markedly different ways in each pelotari. Irujo came out as if determined to display his credentials to the world, a defending champion willing to lay his cards on the table. Barriola in contrast looked ill at ease, like a man feeling his way and sinking. Before he had time to breath, he found himself 0-5 down and all at sea. Barriola’s first point, surely met by a sigh of relief, came courtesy of a falta from Irujo and his subsequent service winner seemed to signal better times ahead. However, it was not to be as Irujo once again surged forwards, out maneuvering Barriola, out hitting him and slaying his spirit by turning defence into attack. With the score at 9-2, Barriola took his second time out, the act of a desperate man.
At this juncture, the outcome of the game appeared all but decided. The gulf between the players both in score and in demeanor was surely unbridgeable. However, Barriola, though an underdog here, is not a minnow and he saw fit to remind us of this fact. His fortunes shifted with the point which took the score to 3-9; Barriola mustered all his resources to retrieve a txoko from Irujo before a crosscourt strike snatched the point. The crowd, or at least his supporters and the neutrals, roared its collective approval. Barriola then forced two errors from his opponent, the first with an excellent serve and the second through a barrage of long, high balls which wore Irujo down. Irujo pulled a point back at 10-5 but Barriola pushed on again to level the scores at 11-11. The true Barriola shone brightly in this period of play. There were careless errors from Irujo, but the underdog served with brilliance and controlled his rival in the subsequent rallies, punishing him with his drop and sotamano. The game now appeared poised and the crowd expectant.
What followed, however, was a let down for all but diehard fans of Irujo. The champion, as champions do, stepped up a gear and found an extra level which flummoxed Barriola and left him for dead. Barriola’s rot started with a falta, which allowed Irujo to regain the lead at 12-11. In the next points, he hit wide and then low on return of serve before succumbing to a drop and a dos paredes from Irujo, who had regained his swagger. Barriola managed one more point thanks to his opponent striking the side wall too high, but in reality it was now one way traffic. Irujo, who finished Barriola off mercilessly with a lightening bolt to the wide court, was simply too good.
It would be easy to conclude that Barriola failed his exam, but that would perhaps be too harsh. He has recently returned from a serious knee injury which robbed him of a year of action, and while he performed well in his few matches leading up to the Manomanista, a game against a rampant Irujo is an altogether different proposition. He looked ring rusty, and his match readiness will improve with time. Time is of course not wholly on his side as he needs to find his mojo swiftly to progress beyond the group stages, but he can be encouraged by his performance in the middle third of this match; he showed that he is capable of bossing points, and he can mount a serious challenge if he finds his consistency. As for Irujo, he can reflect on a job very well done. He is back and hungry after a disappointing end to the Pairs Championship and it would be hard to bet against him. The show is on the road.
Scoring sequence: 5-0, 5-1, 5-2, 6-2, 9-2, 9-3, 9-5, 10-5, 10-7, 11-7, 11-11, 19-11, 19-12, 22-12.
Image from: Aspe