Europe's best skaters land in Zagreb
Several battles for gold to be waged in Croatia
|Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder's fight to defend their dance title will be difficult. (Getty Images)|
The men's competition promises an especially high level, although most top skaters had some problems in the fall season. The favorite is last year's European and world champion Brian Joubert, who missed his second Grand Prix event due to a serious virus in November. He, therefore, could not qualify for the Final in December. Although he recovered quickly to win his sixth French national title, he still seems to have some problems. His adviser and federation president Didier Gailhaguet said on French TV only four days before the competition that he still is not in top shape. But in his first training on early Monday morning, he was stable and optimistic. But there might be a tough battle between him and his main rivals:
Stephane Lambiel from Switzerland, the world champion in 2005 and 2006, had an inconsistent fall season, but he ended on the right note, winning the gold at the Grand Prix Final.
Tomas Verner, a rising star from the Czech Republic, who was not in good mental shape in the fall with sloppy performances early in the fall followed by a strong showing at the Grand Prix Series.
Belgium's Kevin van der Perren, whose quad is safer than before, but has been suffering from hip problems and will need surgery soon.
Sergei Voronov, the new Russian champion from St. Petersburg, could not perform a flip or a Lutz this season because of a foot injury.
Two other French skaters -- Alban Preaubert and Yannick Ponsero -- will also challenge for the podium.
The top contender among the ladies is defending champion Carolina Kostner of Italy, who was the only European lady in the Grand Prix Final. Kostner, however, had a serious flu at the end of December, forcing her to withdraw from Italian nationals. She has not yet had to prove that she is back in shape, but Kostner will undoubtedly be tested in Zagreb. Her strongest elements are the triple-triple combinations.
The other challengers for the podium come mainly from Switzerland and Finland. Switzerland's Sarah Meier finished second last year, and she is ready to challenge Kostner again and wants to prove that Lambiel is not the only Swiss skating star.
There was a hard battle at Finnish nationals for the three spots at Europeans. Laura Lepistö won that battle, taking her first Finnish national title. Kiira Korpi, the bronze medalist at last year's Europeans, took the second berth, and Jenni Vähämaa the third. They both have medal chances.
Elene Gedevanishvili of Georgia, who trains in Hackensack, N.J., was very strong in 2006, her first at the senior level, but she fought inconsistency on her jumps this season.
The two single gold medalists win a $20,000 U.S. in prize money, the silver medalists $13,000 and the bronze medalists $8,000.
Pairs In the pairs competition, there are clear favorites -- Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany. It would be a huge surprise if the Germans did not win their second straight gold medal. They are the best pair in the field, both technically and artistically. They won the Grand Prix Final in December, and they won the German national title with 214 points two weeks ago -- more than any pair in the world has ever had (but national scores are usually higher than those in ISU competitions).
The Germans missed their first planned practice in Zagreb on Sunday night because their luggage, including their skates, did not arrive with them. Their practice on Monday, however, was secure and stable, and all their short program elements went well.
The three main contenders for the other medals come from Russia and the Ukraine. Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov upset defending Russian champs Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov at their nationals in St. Petersburg at the beginning of January. Both will try to unseat the Germans in Zagreb. Ukrainians Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov hope to threaten after a shaky fall season. Kawaguchi and Smirnow tried the quad throw Salchow, which they completed in competition earlier this year, several times in practice, but it was never clean or landed on one foot.
In ice dancing, the experts expect a battle for gold between Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of Russia and the Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder of France. This should be the most hotly contested competition of the whole week. The Russians won the Grand Prix Final, but Shabalin had to undergo meniscus surgery the week after. The French team won European championship last year.
Those top two pairs are really in a class by themselves, but there will be another tight battle for the bronze medal. Russia's Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski are probably the frontrunners, having won the Russian national title in Domnina and Shabalin's stead. Their free dance got a huge applause at practice on the Monday, and some say that they could win the free dance if they skate their best.
At least three other couples will contend for the podium as well. Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali of Italy had excellent performance at their nationals in December. Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France hope to regain their top form and contend, but it will be hard after Bourzat is recovering from meniscus surgery, just like Shabalin. Finally, Sinead Kerr and John Kerr of Great Britain, who made a strong impression in practice on Monday, hope to reach the European podium for the first time.
The pairs and dance medalists win a prize money of $30,000, $19,500 and $12,000 U.S. for gold, silver and bronze, respectively.