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Wellman's fantasy skating preview: Europeans

Top-flight competition highlighted by world-class pairs showdown

Evgeni Plushenko will square off against Javier Fernández in Croatia.
Evgeni Plushenko will square off against Javier Fernández in Croatia. (Getty Images)

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By Tara Wellman, special to icenetwork.com
(01/20/2013) - After a midseason, post-Grand Prix layoff, skating is back this week in a big way. While the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships are set to take center stage in Omaha this week, there's a whole cast of skaters across the Pond ready for their moment of glory at the 2013 European Figure Skating Championships in Zagreb, Croatia. Despite a number of injuries, the lineup still boasts some of the world's best.

And, of course, the return of elite competition means the return of fantasy skating. So let's see what we're up against in determining our teams for Europeans, shall we?

LADIES

Group A
The return of world champ Carolina Kostner at Golden Spin told us two things: She's still capable of greatness, but also that she has some rust to shake off. "Liza" Tuktamisheva, on the other hand, has had her moments this season that made us remember why she was last year's young superstar. Despite less than perfect results, (second and fourth at her Grand Prix events and fifth at the Grand Prix Final), she still posted scores to rival Kostner's total in Zagreb.

With both skaters right around the 175-point mark, and Kostner still working toward world championships shape, I think Tuktamisheva has a golden opportunity. I'm taking a chance on just that and going with Liza.

Group B
Italy's Valentina Marchei has impressed me this season with her commitment to every element in each program, as well as the way she's worked to improve her consistency. Now, she hasn't had the results to vault her to the top, but her scores have put her within striking distance.

Viktoria Helgesson is always a threat, too, having such great basic skating skills to rely on, and beautiful choreography to complement the technical elements. Yet, this season she's been a bit off.

This group, though, should easily belong to Adelina Sotnikova. A fifth-place finish at the Rostelecom Cup cost her a shot at the Final, but she still has more firepower than anyone else in this group. Plus, after losing her Russian title to Tuktamisheva, she has something to prove. I say she takes Group B.

Group C

This is where things get difficult. So many skaters with so little international "elite" experience, and, thus, very little to draw from to make predictions! But, two ladies stand out.

Sonia Lafuente has been on the brink of cracking into that next level ... and so has Natalia Popova. Popova has posted the most consistent scores this season, hanging right around the 145-150 mark.

This week in Croatia, I'm taking Popova in Group C.

MEN

Group A
This is slated to be the big return of Evgeni Plushenko, on his way to the Olympic season. Standing in his way, though, is Javier Fernández, who we have seen is capable of topping the likes of Patrick Chan.

That said, Plushenko is still Plushenko. He won Russian nationals a month after back surgery. He's had time to continue healing and improve his program content, and he's given me no reason not to believe he'll still be the man to beat.

I think Fernández gives him a run for his money, but Plushenko still pulls out the victory.

Group B

Michal Březina had the year of his life last season. This year? It's been more of a roller coaster. He struggled at the start of the year but improved as the season went on.

Sergei Voronov started the year strong, taking the bronze medal at the Cup of China, but then faded to seventh in Japan.

There are a number of guys who could take the opportunity to step up here, but I think Březina is the guy who will take it.

Group C

Boy, is there a lack of experience in this group. Based purely on the scores posted from this season, Paolo Bacchini is primed for a good competition. One of the only Group C men to break the 200-point mark, he has the potential to fare quite well. Others, like Kim Lucine, have some international experience but haven't reached the 200-point mark this season. Coming off of a win at the Merano Cup, I like Bacchini here.

PAIRS

Group A
Finally, we see Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy square off against Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. The Russians have had a rough go of it this year, not in terms of results but in performance. They have had some very unfortunate mistakes that cost them precious points. With both teams locked into the 200-207 range, it should be another great duel. I say the Germans come out on top.

Group B
Last season, Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov inserted themselves into the conversation with the best of the best. However, they faded as the season went on and have struggled to regain that form. Vanessa James and Morgan Ciprès have impressed, and Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek have made good strides, but there is still enough of a gap between them and the Russians that Kavaguti and Smirnov, even in a "down" year, should take Group B.

Group C
There are a few teams in this group that have a little bit of name recognition. Stacey Kemp and David King, for example. Most others have little senior international familiarity. Mari Vartmann and Aaron Van Cleave, though, know what it takes to crack the top five at Euros -- they were fifth at this event a season ago -- and their fifth-place finish at the NRW Trophy with a score of 129+ puts them in good position in this group. That makes them my "C" pick.

ICE DANCE

Group A
Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev made enough improvements over this offseason to have drawn much of the attention in the world of Russian ice dance. However, Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte made great strides, too. Both teams took home silver medals twice on the Grand Prix circuit.

The Russians stayed right around the 159 mark all season, but that was only good enough for fifth at the Final. The Italians fell off the pace a little at their second Grand Prix event but came back strong with better than 165 points at the Final, topping Bobrova and Soloviev by more than seven.

With eyes on worlds, I am giving Cappellini and Lanotte the nod in Group A.

Group B
Nelli Zhiganshina and Alexander Gazsi are the best bet to upstage Ekaterina Riazanova and Ilia Tkachenko here.

And yet, I don't see that happening.

The Russian duo finished third at both of their Grand Prixs and managed to up their scores as the season went on, eventually winning Golden Spin with 161.34. That easily puts them at the top of Group B.

Group C

This one is tough. Many of these dance duos met on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, but many of them have yet to prove they can compete with the best of the best. Then, the few with senior experience have had plenty of inconsistencies of their own to contend with.

Tanja Kolbe and Stefano Caruso, who have scored between 130-145 at some smaller internationals this season, squared off against Siobhan Heekin-Canedy and Dmitri Dun at Golden Spin. Heekin-Canedy and Dun won that battle, finishing third to Kolbe and Caruso's fifth, but only by a little more than a point. Both teams are still relatively new, but I'm giving the nod to Heekin-Canedy and Dun this week.