Sunday 27th March, Eibar
XALA – BARRIOLA beat MARTINEZ DE IRUJO – MERINO II 22-17
Xala and Barriola, the outstanding combination of the tournament thus far, are inches from a place in the final after their battling defeat of the ever improving Martinez de Irujo and Merino II, in front of a large crowd at Astelena. As long as they score fifteen points against Olaizola II and Begino next week, they will proceed to the showdown on 17th April. After their loss here, Irujo and Merino will have to beat Gonzalez and Laskurain.
The favourites should have waltzed away with this game from their early ten point lead, maintained from 13-3 to 15-5. Xala was able to dominate Irujo crosscourt in this spell, as the Manomanista champion perhaps too often went for the txoko, leaving himself open to attack when it did not come off. Barriola, again reminding one of a metronome, played his virtuoso supporting role to perfection. However, with the game half an hour old, Irujo sizzled into life. Key to his transformation was the newfound power of his serve, which at times baffled Xala and Barriola, sending them into uncharacteristic confusion. Merino , too, got in on the act, rushing in with both hands to pull off some of the best shots of the day. Having drawn level at 15-15 with their flurry of dominance, it seemed as if, with the momentum on their side, there was no stopping Irujo and his young partner. However, they were able to add only two more points, as Xala and Barriola restored the status quo. Xala volleyed and hooked with stunning intensity, adding a further five winners as his gallant opponents were extinguished
It is clearly possible to beat Xala and Barriola, but they have the stoicism and tenacity to come back time and again from deficits which might finish others off. This is the mark of champions in waiting, although they cannot afford to be complacent for a second, as anything can happen in a final. Key to their consistency is the bombproof defence of Barriola; his worth was proved here time and again as he contained Merino, who failed to reach the stellar heights of his performance in Bilbao last week. Still, the game is not up for Irujo and Merino; nobody is out and nobody is through. These semi finals will go down to the wire.