The combinations for the 2013 Pairs Championship were announced yesterday at the Hotel Karlos Arguiñano in Zarautz. They are as follows:
For Asegarce: Olaizola II-Ibai Zabala, Bengoetxea VI-Beroiz, Berasaluze VIII-Albisu, Arretxe II-Begino
For Aspe: Martinez de Irujo-Zabaleta, Xala-Barriola, Gonzalez-Zubieta, Titin III-Merino II
The empresas usually spring some surprises with their line ups, but this year’s pairs give rise to more discussion points than is common. The most obvious place to start is the pairing of Aimar Olaizola with Ibai Zabala. Zabala is a debutant in the championship and has rarely played at this level even in matches which matter for little. His inclusion is a major surprise, as he has apparently done very little in the past year to press for selection. Alexis Apraiz will feel aggrieved and not without reason; he himself has rarely set the world on fire this year but has consistently played on a higher level than Zabala, and is far more experienced. Also unexpected is the fact that Zabala plays Olaizola. Olaizola and Beroiz were nigh on unbeatable as a combination in the 2012 championship, only falling in the semi finals where Beroiz was badly hampered by hand problems. They won all of their round robin matches, an unprecedented feat. It is puzzling as to why Asegarce would not give them another shot but more confusing is why Olaizola would be given Zabala as a partner instead. There is little sense in putting a debutant with an inexperienced partner, and thus Zabala must feel all his Christmases have come at once, but it is hard to see this partnership going all the way, even with Olaizola at the helm. Olaizola is Asegarce’s golden goose but they seem to have shot themselves in the foot here by severely denting his chances of winning another title.
The other Asegarce pairings are less of a shock; one could argue for Beroiz being teamed with Olaizola again, but with Bengoetxea he should go far nonetheless. This looks like one of the strongest teams on paper. Berasaluze and Albisu resume their partnership from 2012 when they very nearly made the final. Slightly puzzling though is the second chance being afforded to Arretxe and Begino, who were very poor last year in winning only three of their fourteen matches in the opening stage and suffering a string of very heavy losses. There was a definite case here for giving a younger player such as Urrutikoetxea a shot at the highest level, and many would argue for retaining Apraiz over Begino who has never regained the level which saw him win the title with Olaizola in 2011.
There are two major talking points in the Aspe line up. The first of these is the debut of Zabaleta, which is well deserved. The empresa has clearly been grooming him for the big league and his recent performances hinted at a forthcoming selection. The fact that they have paired him with Irujo is a major vote of confidence and it is easy to see them going far here. Laskurain is the victim in this, as the defender forced to make way from last year’s selection. He may have cause to complain after finishing a slightly unexpected runner-up with Xala last year, but on current form it is unsurprising that he was the one to go.
The other main topic for discussion as far as Aspe are concerned, and perhaps the biggest surprise, is the inclusion of Gonzalez over a whole string of young pretenders with excellent claims. Gonzalez was left out in 2012 in favour of Aritz Lasa and made his hurt very evident in the press, later being forced to apologise to his employers for his words. Throughout the intervening year he has done very little to prove that their decision was ill advised, having very rarely been at his best, if at all. Aspe has an embarrassment of riches on the forward front and four other players legitimately made their cases for selection. Jon Jaunarena is young and perhaps they wish to bring him on more slowly, but he has won all three Promocion titles this year as well as embarrassing many far older players. There is nothing more he could have done to present his case. Also banging on the door was Joseba Ezkurdia who looked to be on a fast track to the top level, being blooded repeatedly in headline matches and more than holding his own. Perhaps Aspe thought that he, too, needed more time. If they were reluctant to gamble on a very young player though, the time was surely right for Retegi Bi, and especially for Idoate. These two seem stuck in limbo, surely good enough to be given a chance at the main championship but too experienced for the Promocion. If Aspe wanted to look to the future and develop the players who will be amongst their stalwarts in the years to come, giving one or other of them the chance to shine now would have seemed prudent. Their only consolation is that neither Gonzalez nor Titin can go on for ever, but then again, if Jaunarena and Ezkurdia fulfil their promise they may miss their chance entirely, condemned to inhabit the gap between the upper and lower level in perpetuity. Xala and Barriola will be solid and there is little about which to argue here, although given the past successes and clear chemistry of Xala and Zubieta as a pair, one could have argued for that. Finally, Titin and Merino get the chance to defend their title, which is right, proper and fair.
It is four months before we will know which of these pairs will prove the best. The Pairs Championship always produces surprises, pairs who exceed the sum of their parts and stellar combinations which never quite gel. Whatever one makes of the pairs presented in December, the journey is always a fascinating one, and very definitely a marathon rather than a sprint. The fun kicks off this Friday and there will be much to entertain us over the Christmas:
Friday 21st December, Najera: XALA – BARRIOLA v ARRETXE II – BEGINO
Saturday 22nd December, Pamplona: GONZALEZ – ZUBIETA v MARTINEZ DE IRUJO – ZABALETA
Sunday 23rd December, Bilbao: BERASALUZE VIII – ALBISU v BENGOETXEA VI – BEROIZ
Tuesday 25th December, Eibar: OLAIZOLA II – IBAI ZABALA v TITIN III – MERINO II
Can the Riojans take the top step again in 2013?