Sunday 30th January, Eibar
OLAIZOLA II – BEGINO beat XALA – BARRIOLA 22-19
This match was billed as the clash of the titans, a contest between the only two undefeated pairs in the championship. Opinions were divided as to who deserved favouritism. Xala and Barriola had shown themselves to be a Rolls Royce of a pair, a well oiled machine. Barriola had been the defender of the tournament, and his solidity and invention had been key in setting up Xala for his nonchalant killer blows. Despite the huge strength of Begino, almost all discussion of the Asegarce pair centred on Olaizola. Nobody knew, when the pairings were announced at the end of last year, how he would fare, having returned so recently after a seven month injury lay off. He appeared to lack some of his pre-injury speed, though his left arm seemed just as potent a weapon as ever. However, this showdown gave the Goizuetarra a golden opportunity to demonstrate his enduring class, and he seized it with both hands, the right as well as the left.
The 1200 baying fans who filled Astelena to the rafters expected virtuosity, and at first they were surely disappointed; of the first eleven points, eight ended with errors. The pairs refused to be separated in either winners or faults, as both forwards blew hot and cold. Aimar was the playmaker in the first two points, almost grasping the first one with a sizzling, but just wide, gantxo, and finding his range in the second with an easy txoko. The Aspe pair edged ahead when Begino blew the work of his partner, followed by a strike from Xala, but a falta from the latter, followed by a working over by Aimar of Barriola brought affairs level again at 3-3. 4-4 gave way to 6-6 as stalemate continued.
The game then began to shift in favour of Xala and Barriola, who increasingly exerted their accustomed control. Xala’s serve was key to the kick starting of this passage of play as three aces brought easy points, and an increasingly rattled Begino appeared unable to put hand to ball. Barriola joined his partner in the pressurisation of Begino, who made two errors in a row, first hitting wildly wide in a tame end to an otherwise virtuosic point, and then rather inevitably succumbing to the onslaught of his opposite number. An error apiece from the blue pair brought the reds back within two points of parity, but Xala upped his game once again, wrong footing Aimar with a beautifully executed set piece, and striking two winners into clear open space. They suffered a slight lapse when Xala left a ball for Barriola, who was nowhere to be seen, but a five point lead was restored emphatically with two further aces.
It was hard to imagine a comeback from Aimar and Aritz, given the calm ease with which the gap over them had been created, but that was to reckon without the class of the seven-time txapela winner. Aimar, great and cool match player that he is, grasped the nettle and slipped into an altogether new gear. 11-16 became 14-16 in the blink of an eye, as he did for Barriola with a gargantuan long ball before striking two emphatic hammer blows in the form of a txoko and a gantxo. A revived Begino then got in on the act, foxing Barriola with a dipping ball to the side wall which he drove wide. It was then Xala’s turn to feel the heat, as Aimar found width and movement, sending him back and forth until he seemed fit to drop. His second successive error gave the Asegarce pair the lead at 17-16. Not content with this, Aimar forged ahead with two expertly worked points in which the inevitable outcome was two winners to his growing tally. There was a hint of resurgence from the blues, as Xala managed a txoko, and Begino succumbed to a moment of carelessness, but two further errors gave Aimar and Aritz a deserved win.
There is no doubt that Aimar Olaizola was the difference here; he found another gear into which his opponents were unable to shift. His ten winners showed the full range of his shot play and his movement, dispelling any doubts that his injury may have dampened his potency for the long term. Xala had his moments, but was stuck in a lower league on this occasion, managing only half the winners of his rival, and committing six costly errors. Barriola, for the most part, held sway at the back of the fronton, making fewer mistakes than his counterpart, but Begino was more than able to support Aimar when it mattered most, and Barriola was impotent to overcome the gap between the two forwards. On present form, we may have witnessed a preview of the final, though much can happen in the lengthy course of this championship. If these stellar pairs do meet again on this elevated stage, it will be a fight for the ages.
Scoring sequence: 0-1, 1-1, 1-3, 3-3, 3-4, 4-4, 6-4, 6-6, 6-10, 8-10, 8-13, 11-13, 11-16, 16-16, 20-16, 20-18, 21-18, 21-19, 22-19.
Winners/errors: Olaizola II (10/4), Xala (5/6), Begino (2/5), Barriola (1/1)
Image from Deia