Sunday 13th March, Eibar
XALA – BARRIOLA beat BENGOETXEA VI – ALBISU 22-8
This match was all about Oinatz Bengoetxea and Jon Ander Albisu, and by extension, Patxi Ruiz. Yves Sallaberry (Xala) and Abel Barriola, the favourites, had already secured their berth in the semi finals, but for their opponents, this was crunch time. Their Asegarce colleagues, Iker Arretxe and Ibai Zabala had done their best to eliminate Martinez de Irujo and David Merino, but squandered a match point to lose 22-21, meaning that Bengoetxea and Albisu had to score at least ten points against Xala and Barriola to qualify. For Bengoetxea and his usual partner, Patxi Ruiz, this should have been a formality. However, with Ruiz injured, grave responsibility fell on the head of his replacement, inexperienced twenty year old Albisu. Given the track record of Bengoetxea and Ruiz as a pair over the past year, a semi final line up devoid of them would seem perverse, but Xala and Barriola were in no mood for charity, and Albisu was forced to leave the fronton, head in hands, with Bengoetxea high and dry.
The encounter started in the worst possible way for the Asegarce pair; Albisu hit high in open play, and then again from a Xala serve, allaying no fears about the possible state of his nerves. Bengoextea steadied the ship with a crosscourt flick, ending a hard fought point, to get his partnership on the board, but Xala showed that he could beat him at his own game in the very next point, before Albisu miscued twice more in the next three points. Bengoetxea subsequently rushed into a potential drop winner which met the ground instead of the frontis. Scoring was an arduous trial for the blue pair, who picked up points periodically, but could not establish any momentum. Bengoetxea’s class shone through with the winners he managed, notably in the two excellent drops on 2-8 and 3-8, the second of which revealed disorganisation in the red camp for the first, and perhaps only time in the game.
However, despite the sterling defensive efforts for which he has become renowned, Bengoetxea was unable to compensate for the lack of attacking platform afforded him by Albisu. It was assumed that Xala and Barriola would target the young defender as the weak link, but as things unfolded, it became clear that he would dig his own grave. Time and again he hit too high, perhaps attempting in vain to put some pressure on the relentless Barriola. More frustratingly for the blues, he threw away points which should have been theirs; on 5-12, Barriola was forced forward to cover a txoko, but was let off the hook by an error, the result of either carelessness or tension. Again, and more crucially, on 8-20, with the magic ten points almost in reach, he undid all the excellent scrapping forward work of Bengoetxea to concede match point.
While the flailing Asegarce duo tried in vain to accrue points, Xala and Barriola moved forward with all of their customary ease and grace. So reliable and efficient was Barriola that one hardly noticed his presence. He ran rings around his young counterpart without breaking a bead of sweat, to the extent that there was an almost audible gasp when he finally made an error on 20-7. Watching such a consummate master at work, it seems baffling that he has won as few major championships as he has. Consistency throughout the year, as in an individual match, is Barriola’s byword, but maybe this time around the rewards will come. Xala’s showing was less than totally perfect, but so dominant was he over Bengoetxea that his two errors were hardly noticed. Most of his mounting winners were achieved with brutal ease, whether rocketed crosscourt or tapped delicately into the corner. On the occasions when Bengoetxea did engage him in a scap, Xala more often than not had his number. Even in the close fight on 3-8 which Bengoetxea won, Xala’s pick-up off the floor, adjudged to have bounced twice, was an extremely close run thing.
So, it is over and out for Bengoetxea and Ruiz. With Ruiz in place, the necessary ten points would surely have come more easily. Albisu fought as hard as he could, and showed talent in spurts, but in truth he leaked points, and gave Bengoetxea little room to manoeuvre. The qualifying concerns of their rivals were of little import to Xala and Barriola, who continued on their serene journey through this championship. They head the final quartet, and it would be brave in the extreme to predict their exit before four becomes two.
Scoring sequence: 2-0, 2-1, 4-1, 4-2, 8-2, 8-4, 9-4, 9-5, 17-5, 17-6, 20-6, 20-8 and 22-8.
Match time: 47.04 minutes, with 21.22 minutes of play
Service winners: Xala 4, Bengoetxea 0
Winners: Xala 9, Barriola 0, Bengoetxea 4, Albisu 0
Errors: Xala 2, Barriola 1, Bengoetxea 3, Albisu 5
Image from Diario Vasco