Shock in Bilbao as Xala and Laskurain make a final without big favourites
Friday 13th April, Bilbao
XALA – LASKURAIN beat OLAIZOLA II – BEROIZ 22-18
Friday 13th, unlucky for some, and certainly unlucky for Aimar Olaizola and Mikel Beroiz. Save for one narrow loss to Titin III and Merino II the previous week, Asegarce’s flagship pairing had blazed an unbeaten trail through the 2012 Pairs Championship, winning fifteen matches in a row. They had to win here to secure their place in the final, a place which had seemed a certainty for weeks on end. They had one foot over the line, and most of the second as they found themselves in a 16-7 lead here. However, an injury to the right hand of Beroiz, exacerbated at 10-5 when he left the field of play for treatment, proved their spectacular undoing. This state of affairs is to take nothing away from Xala and Laskurain, who knew exactly what they had to do to exploit the defensive hole left by their opponents and followed a ruthless plan to absolute perfection. They only just scraped into the semi finals at the expense of pre-tournament favourites Irujo and Barriola, and now find themselves in the final. As Beroiz missed to hand them their 22-18 win they could scarcely believe what had happened to them.
The first half of the match was all Aimar and Beroiz. Beroiz was not as solid as of late and clearly not on top form, but thanks to the continuing winning swagger of Aimar, his contribution seemed more than enough. Xala made two hapless errors in a row to hand the favourites a 3-8 advantage and it was very evident who was on top both in the mental stakes and in reality. Xala served his way back into some contention but Aimar was in no mood to mess around, playing Laskurain like a puppet on a string for a 10-5 lead clinched with a trademark gantxo. When Beroiz returned from his injury break, things were clearly not all well but Aimar, well aware of the situation, shouldered responsibility for keeping the ball away from his partner as much as he realistically could. He looked imperious in stretching their advantage to 13-5, using his serve as a platform for the domination of three points on the trot.
However, there was a limit to the amount of time that one player, however great, could take so much of the play on himself. Beroiz ceded the serve at 8-16 with a mishit and Xala and Laskurain seized the day. They repeatedly pummelled Beroiz, who had no hitting power and no answer. It was a simple but brutally effective tactic and worked to a tee. Aimar, presumably realising the need to grasp chances for winners when he had them in order to shorten each rally, missed a brace of winner chances and the pressure continued unabated. When Beroiz did not miscue or fall short, his returns were not deep enough and presented Xala with easy opportunities to put points away. The man from Lekuine also served with great accuracy; no trick was missed. As Aimar found in the Manomanista final last year summer, when Xala eyes the prize he rarely lets up and so it proved here. Injury to Beroiz or no, this was a staggering comeback. Beroiz ended with seven errors, though in reality many more points were lost as a direct result of his weakness. Aimar was on paper at least the better of the forwards but circumstance prevailed against him. Sport can be cruel.
Scoring sequence: 0-1, 1-1, 1-3, 3-3, 3-9, 5-9, 5-10, 5-13, 7-13, 7-16, 14-16, 14-17, 18-17, 18-18, 22-18.
Winners/errors: Xala 8/5, Olaizola 10/4, Laskurain 3/3, Beroiz 0/7.
On Sunday, the line-up for the Promocion Final was completed as OLAZABAL – LARRINAGA beat RICO IV – UNTORIA 22-17 in Pamplona. They will return to Labrit on Saturday 28th April to play JAUNARENA – CECILIO for the title. Jaunarena-Cecilio beat a spirited URRUTIKOETXEA – IBAI ZABALA 22-20 in the dead rubber in Eibar. The main Pairs Final takes place on Sunday 29th April at Bizkaia in Bilbao and I will be there to report from the scene!