Friday 23rd December, Tolosa
MARTINEZ DE IRUJO – BARRIOLA beat XALA – LASKURAIN 22-17
Xala and Laskurain came into this match with a point to prove, having fallen apart against supposedly less fancied opposition in the first week. However, having to play against the tournament favourites when seeking a restoration of confidence is never ideal. Irujo and Barriola for their part may have felt the need to pull off a game which justified their favouritism after being tested more than they would have liked last week, meaning that they too were well and truly up for the fight. They were tested for the second week running, but their superior control and teamwork saw them through leaving their opponents, highly fancied to make the last four, nursing their wounds after two losses from two.
The favourites made the early running, going ahead 3-8 thanks mainly to the stroke play of Irujo. Barriola made two uncharacteristic early errors, but with their opponents slipping up in their attempt to hit the lines, they mattered little. However, when Barriola continued his lapse, matters became a little more urgent for the blue pair. Three further errors in a row from the great defender, two rather lax and the third an over-ambitious attempt at a cross court winner, brought the reds to within two points. Xala seized his chance and pulled his duo into the lead at 10-9, inducing Irujo to hurl the ball at the frontis with total disgust. Two winners, perhaps a knee-jerk reaction, from Irujo gave the lead back to the blues and the lead changed again as Xala mixed winners full of wow factor with an extremely careless missed txoko. At 12-12 there was nothing to choose between the sides but a mistake each from Irujo and Barriola gave Xala and Laskurain a two point lead for the first time. Again, though, Irujo used his disgust as a spur to action. On 13-14 he slipped trying to change direction, leaving the court open for Xala. When Laskurain handed the serve back to Irujo as he rushed into a covering attempt on behalf of Xala, Irujo changed gear.
Irujo and Xala had hitherto been evenly matched, but the man from Ibero now put on a demonstration not only of his shot making ability but of his skill in manipulating his rivals like inanimate puppets. This was never so apparent as in the point which gave him a 20-17 lead, in which he worked Xala until he was forced to run backwards, leaving Laskurain woefully unable to pick up the pieces at the front. Xala failed to help himself, alternating between clever and skilful play and inexplicable misses, and the final two points were all Irujo, the first taken after he had bombed Laskurain into submission and the second seized with an extremely easy txoko.
Although they were forced to scrap until the mid point, Irujo and Barriola will take a vast amount of confidence from this performance, for they proved themselves able to lift their game when it mattered. Xala and Laskurain, in contrast, will have done nothing to make themselves feel better. They are a classy pairing no doubt, and will grow into the competition, but in these early stages they do not appear as a couple brimming with inner harmony. Thankfully for them though, April is a whole world away.
Scoring sequence: 0-2, 1-2, 1-4, 3-4, 3-5, 3-8, 7-8, 7-9, 10-9, 10-10, 10-11, 11-11, 11-12, 12-12, 14-12, 14-13, 15-13, 15-18, 17-18, 17-22.
Winners/errors: Xala 8/4, Irujo 14/3, Laskurain 0/4, Barriola 0/6
Match time: 1:05.32 with 28:18 of actual play
Balls hit: 560