Sunday 13th November, Bilbao
OLAIZOLA II beat BARRIOLA 22-18
It was do or die at Bizkaia. The baying capacity crowd knew it and the players knew it. The atmosphere was that of a final and the intensity almost overwhelming as Aimar Olaizola and Abel Barriola battled for their lives in the championship. The winner would net automatic qualification and the chance to take on Juan Martinez de Irujo for the txapela and the loser would leave with nothing. Aimar, the best player of the year, was the clear favourite, especially in the light of Barriola’s drubbing at the hands of Irujo the previous week, but the majority of the support was for the underdog who pushed the more fancied player for almost every minute of the hour it took to decide the winner. Aimar took the spoils in each department but was forced to scrap as hard as he has done all year, always ahead of Barriola but never able to bang the final nail into his coffin until the very end. Barriola’s refusal to lie down made for scintillating theatre but his beligerence must surely have pushed the nervous of disposition on both sides of the fence to the limits of their endurance.
A roar of anticipation rose from the crowd as Aimar took the first serve but fell rather flat as he opened his account with a falta. This was not the way the four time champion would have wished to start and although he negated the error in the next point when a powerful gantxo clattered into the seating like a warning shot, he lost the next two points to an error and a dos paredes from Barriola. Barriola seemed the more assured on this first assessment, and Aimar appeared unusually nervous. Two winners, and airez into space and a gantxo returned the score to parity at 3-3 but Barriola moved again, taking a 5-3 and 6-4 lead. Barriola controlled the space better and picked and executed the better shots, while Aimar chased the game, fighting like a demon to stay in each point. In this early passage of play, the does paredes proved both Barriola’s ally and his downfall. Two he hit with aplomb and two missed their target, ultimately handing the serve back to Aimar, and bringing him back to within one point. Given Aimar’s apparent unease, it seemed likely that the game would continue to hang in the balance, but from 6-6 he lit the fuse and pulled away, a different player in sweeping unopposed to 14-7. Barriola had a chance to stem the tide when an airez winner gave him the serve back at 7-11, but he handed it straight back with a most untimely falta. He was unable to counter the power of Aimar’s shot play, paticularly the searing strength of his left arm crosscourt play; five of his points in this run were taken with either a gantxo or an airez from left to right.
The Olaizola camp breathed a sigh of relief, for it was difficult to see how Barriola could overcome their man’s resurgent force. However, Barriola was anything but bowed by his predicament and set about plugging the gap in the scoreline. He gradually played his way back into the match and started his retaliation with three straight points to stand at 10-14. He closed further still to 12-15 before coming withing two points at 14-16 with a powerful service winner. Aimar eeked out a three point lead once more with a textbook ganxto-followed-by-txoko routine and then a service winner of his own and it appeared as if calm had been restored; four points stood between him and the final and his opponent stood a further four points in arrears. Barriola, though, never gives up and when Aimar carelessly hit high to make it 18-15, the door was open once again. Within three points Barriola had put himself firmly back in the frame, sitting at 17-18 and with his tail up. Aimar, rattled, retreated to the chair for the counsel of his brother Asier. When he returned he achieved three point lead once again but he was forced to fight tooth and nail for it. The first of the two points was gifted to him by an error from Barriola but the next was unbearably tense, a salvo of balls flying back and forth before he somehow, maybe through willpower alone, turned Barriola’s dos paredes into a miraculous winner across the frontis to the left hand wall. As the adage goes, no guts no glory. Abel, extraordinarily, came back again with a stunning gantxo eliciting a furious fist pump. Aimar was two points from victory but the line still seemed so very distant. Fortunately for the favourite, Abel gave him the help he craved, hitting low twice in a row to crown an auspicious effort with an inauspicous ending.
The relief was written for all to see across the faces of both Olaizola brothers as they embraced, but as we were later to find out, a lingering worry lurked behind their smiles. Aimar had hurt his finger trying to sccop up Barriola’s point-winning serve at 18-17 and went straight to hospital for a scan. The scan revealed a small crack in the tip of the middle finger of his left hand. This injury puts into a cetain degree of doubt the date of the final, due to be held in Bilabo on Sunday 27th November, All the signs are that he will be able to play and the Asegarce medical staff see no major cause for concern, but a decision will be taken after he has trained tomorrow or Friday following four days of rest. In the event that he cannot play on the 27th, the final will be moved to the 4th December. Whatever the outcome, Olaizola II and Irujo will renew their scintillating rivalry on the biggest stage in a match not to be missed.
Scoring sequence: 1-0, 1-1, 3-1, 3-3, 5-3, 5-4, 6-4, 6-11, 7-11, 7-14, 10-14, 10-15, 12-15, 12-16, 14-16, 14-18, 17-18, 17-20, 18-20, 18-22.
Balls hit: 270:
Match time: 59:51 with 12:22 of actual play
Olaizola II: winners 13, errors 8
Barriola: winners 14, errors 5
Aimar Olaizola will go for his fifth title against Irujo
Image from El Correo by JM Lopez