Sunday 22nd January, Bilbao
OLAIZOLA II – BEROIZ beat MARTINEZ DE IRUJO – BARRIOLA 22-15
It is unusual for an early stage round robin match to feel like a final, but from the packed house at Bizkaia, the electric atmosphere and the ruthless desire and intensity inherent in the play, it appeared every bit like one. The Pairs Championship has been craving this match, a head to head between the two pairs who have proved themselves head and shoulders over the opposition. There had been little high octane excitement in the competition up until this point, with too many matches ending in a landslide, so the fans resolved to enjoy this clash of the titans to the hilt. The result will probably mean little in the final analysis, for all these pairs need to do for the moment is make sure they saunter into the semi finals, but Olaizola II and Beroiz took a victory for morale, first blood, and inflicted upon Irujo and Barriola quite a body blow in a match which scintillated from start to finish.
There were two distinct periods in the match, one in which the pairs were so evenly matched that they could not be prised even a centimetre apart, before Aimar opened his shoulders to seize the day, supported by a fabulous Beroiz. As in any match involving Aimar and Irujo, most of the interest focussed on them in the latest round of their rivalry. Last time they met, Aimar rattled Irujo like never before in the Cuatro y Medio final and it seemed that here, his victim was in no mood to concede again, nostrils flaring and eyes glaring as he hurled himself after every ball. The defence of both the forwards was staggering; somehow, they sent spiralling back balls which appeared like sure fire winners and which probably would have been against many professional opponents. Both also induced gasps in attack. Aimar’s service return on 2-1 had to be seen to be believed; Irujo certainly appeared utterly incredulous as he saw the ball rip past him to his right, dipping to the base of the frontis and falling with incredible placement into open space. No less fabulous was Irujo’s dos paredes at 6-8 which found an almost unfeasible angle to dig him and Barriola out of a dreadful hole.
While the stellar forwards fought tooth and nail at the front, there was a no less intriguing battle playing out behind between experience and youth. Barriola is the consummate defender, a seemingly impenetrable wall, impossible to crack. 21 year old Beroiz, however, is not fazed by reputations and threw himself headlong into a war of attrition. Each attempted to grind the other down with patience and nerve and while each was stunningly good, Beroiz held the aces. Not only did he return the long ball with metronomic ease, but he also joined in attack, notably with a txoko winner out of the blue at 12-10. Asegarce must be beaming all over their faces at their signing of Beroiz from Aspe, for he is assuredly the real deal.
From 13-13, the Asegarce pair started to edge ahead and it appeared as if for the first time someone had grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns. On 15-13, Aimar and Beroiz got themselves into an extraordinary mess but somehow pulled themselves out of it to win the point, and it seemed as if this might finally break Irujo and Barriola’s resolve. However, a careless error from each threw the momentum away. For many pairs, this may have been a moment of panic and game changing frustration, but for Aimar it provided all the incentive he needed to seal the deal. Four crosscourt winners from the rampant defending champion, plus two errors forced by tactical mastery won the game as Irujo and Barriola became suddenly impotent in the face of a team both mentally and physically at the height of their powers. True, this win is little more than an early salvo but the confidence it will have given the victors may prove a vital edge when it really matters.
Scoring sequence: 2-0, 2-1, 3-1, 3-3, 5-3, 5-9, 11-9, 11-10, 13-10, 13-13, 16-13, 16-15, 22-15.
Winners/errors: Olaizola 12/5, Beroiz 1/2, Irujo 7/5, Barriola 2/2
Match time: 1:10.15, with 35:38 of actual play
Balls hit: 709