Sunday 9th January, Logrono
ARITZ LASA – MERINO II beat TITIN III – PASCUAL 22-21
Nobody in their right mind gave Aritz Lasa and David Merino much hope ahead of yesterday’s tie at Adarraga. Lasa, standing in for Martinez de Irujo and his injured hand, was reckoned a lowly substitute in comparison with the champion he replaced, and given that the original combination had received a mauling in their first game, their cause seemed hopeless. Neither could one stand by the contention that the pair would be better than the sum of their parts, as the two men had little or no track record as a combination. Facing them were local titan Titin, and Inigo Pascual, a seasoned pairing and wise heads on experienced shoulders. They, in contrast, had won their first match, against the effervescent Berasaluze VIII and Apraiz, and the second looked ripe for the taking. However, nobody could have written the script for what was to follow.
Lasa and Merino, full of blind hope, blitzed the first portion of the game with a little help from Pascual. Belying the future path of the encounter, Titin seized the opening point with a stunning airez, but the next seven points went the way of the underdogs. Amazingly, the first four of them came from Pascual errors; the usually solid defender had mislaid his radar with a vengeance, unable to find the frontis from any angle or distance. If the first four of their points were handed to them on a plate, the next two demonstrated that the reds were nobody’s fools, taken as they were by two Lasa gantxos, perfectly engineered by both players to leave Titin sprawling in desperation. When Lasa missed a ball flush with the side wall, it seemed as if the favourites might restore some order, but he and Merino marched on in continuing confidence. Lasa continued where he had left off and continued to give Titin the runaround, and an ever more assured Merino worked Pascual over until he crumbled yet again. The point on 9-2 demonstrated just how far Titin and Pascual had fallen, when the former left a ball for the latter, who was nowhere to be seen. A bad day morphed into a farce, and at 13-3 the game looked up; not only were the reds proving to be a well oiled partnership, but the inexperienced Merino’s awareness and reading of the game were exemplary when compared to Pascual’s catastrophic efforts.
However, Titin and Pascual had obviously read the proverb about the fat lady, for the game changed in the blinking of an eye; Lasa and Merino’s slide to 15-15 from a position of such dominance is testament in the main to the never-say-die attitude of Titin. The wily veteran served up individual brilliance to end the point scoring party of the reds, whipping a gantxo out wide to Lasa, whose creditable but shallow return left his partner high and dry. Lasa then succumbed to the same disease which had so afflicted Pascual and missed two simple balls, before Titin, dealing his preferred balls, produced two quickfire service winners and two matter-of-fact txokos. As the reds fell into disarray, miscuing at will and out of position, the blues raced to parity.
The result now seemed a foregone conclusion; the greener pair had had their moment in the sun and the correct order had been restored. However, this was to underestimate the sheer willpower and desire to succeed of Lasa and the youthfully determined Merino, who were in no mood to let their opponents’ momentum gather apace. Instead, they clung on, trading point for point in a grim battle. The favourites took a two point lead at 15-17 thanks to a third fluffed txoko from Lasa and the implosion of a bombarded Merino, but they fought from behind to 17-17 and then 18-18. Again, however, they let their guard slip, two errors from the young defender sending Titin and Pascual to the edge of triumph. Surely at 18-21 there was no way back for the game underdogs? But with Adarraga, filled almost equally with Titin’s tifosi and friends of the younger local boy Merino, in full cry, the game tipped into fever pitch as the red pair saved all three match points thanks to two errors from Titin and a terrifyingly tense exchange, brilliantly won with an overarm swipe by an ecstatic Lasa. In comparison with the point which took the game to 21-21, the final rally was something of an anti-climax in terms of quality, but when Titin, diving in despair, hit low, there was nothing muted about the reaction of the victors.
As a game of pelota, the Riojan faithful witnessed both the sublime and the ridiculous, a curate’s egg, but as a spectacle there will surely be few games in the 2011 championship to match it. Both pairs swung from one extreme both of quality and emotion to the other, but finished almost equal in rating. Lasa and Titin were both inspired and stilted in equal measure, and Titin managed more winners than Lasa but also committed more errors. In the back division, the distinction was clearer. Merino was by no means immune to failure, but he was easily the more potent of the two. Pascual demonstrated his superb ability at fielding the long ball on numerous occasions, but he was far too error prone for this to be a factor. Merino was the cooler, the more assured and the more tactically astute, a fact which will boost his confidence no end after the previous week’s drubbing. Many were quick to condemn the Irujo-Merino experiment then, but with the return of the champion when fully recovered, who is to say that greater heights may not be reached?
Scoring sequence: 0-1, 7-1, 7-2, 12-2, 12-3, 13-3, 13-10, 14-10, 14-14, 15-14, 15-15, 15-17, 17-17, 17-18, 18-18, 18-21, 22-21.
Winners: Lasa 9, Titin 13, Merino 1, Pascual 0
Errors: Lasa 4, Titin 6, Merino 4, Pascual 6
Image from La Rioja, by Jonathan Herreros