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European Championships return to Finland

Strong Finnish ladies team to challenge for gold

Italy's Carolina Kostner is considered the ladies favorite at the 2009 European Championships.
Italy's Carolina Kostner is considered the ladies favorite at the 2009 European Championships. (Getty Images)

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By J. Barry Mittan, special to icenetwork.com
(01/20/2009) - It has been 10 years since Finland hosted an ISU championship, when Helsinki hosted the 1999 Worlds. The city will host the European Championships for the third time starting January 20.

In 1999, the Finns had no serious chances for medals. This time, the host country is hoping for more than one.

Ladies

Finland's ladies team is the strongest in Europe. All three of their entries have made the podium at Europeans the past four years.

Susanna Pöykiö had the highest finish when she took the silver medal in 2005, then placed fourth in 2007.

Current Finnish champion Kiira Korpi won the bronze medal in 2007 and finished just off the podium last season.

Laura Lepistö took the bronze medal last season, then finished eighth at the 2008 World Championships.

All three of the ladies have a legitimate chance to reach the podium in Helsinki.

Even so, Italy's Carolina Kostner is considered the favorite again this year after winning the last two European Championships and a silver medal at the 2008 Worlds.

Kostner is the only lady competing at Europeans who is ranked in the top ten in the icenetwork.com world rankings, coming in third after Yu-Na Kim and Mao Asada.

The only other European lady ranked in the top ten, Switzerland's Sarah Meier, who has been on the podium at Europeans for the last two years, will miss the event due to a back injury. Meier was ninth in the latest rankings.

All off the Finns were in the next ten in the rankings with Lepisto ranked 11th, Korpi 15th and Poykio 20th.

The only other entry currently ranked in the top 20 is 2004 European champion, Julia Sebestyen of Hungary, who is ranked 16th.

Men

In the men's competition, the battle for supremacy is shaping up as a French-Czech affair.

France's Brian Joubert, the top-ranked man in the icenetwork.com world rankings, is a two-time European champions (2004 and 2007) and would like a third title.

Joubert has had an up-and-down season, withdrawing from the French Nationals and the ISU Grand Prix Final due to injuries, but is now healthy.

He is backed by a strong team that includes 11th-ranked Alban Préaubert and 14th-ranked Yannick Ponsero.

Preaubert finished ahead of Joubert at Trophée Eric Bompard in Paris, while Ponsero his first French men's title and his first ISU Grand Prix medal, a bronze at the NHK Trophy.

Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic, currently eighth in the world rankings, is the defending European men's champion.

Verner has had a strong season so far, making his first ISU Grand Prix Final, where he finished fourth.

He is backed by teammate Michal Brezina, who won two events in the ISU Junior Grand Prix series.

Belgium's Kevin van der Perren, tenth in the world rankings, won a bronze medal at Europeans in 2007 and has a chance to return to the podium.

Russia's Sergei Voronov, fourth at Europeans last season, is another strong contender.

Pairs

Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, the number one pairs team in the icenetwork.com world rankings, are the overwhelming favorites to win their third straight European Championships.

Although they were only third at the ISU Grand Prix Final in Korea, the reigning world champions have scored more than ten points higher than their closest European competitors this season.

Russia's Yuko Kawaguchi and Alexander Smirnov, who won the bronze medal at Europeans last season, come into the event ranked fourth, just ahead of their countrymen, Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov who were ranked sixth.

Mukhortova and Trankov took the silver medal at the 2008 Europeans behind Savchenko and Szolkowy.

Ukraine's Tatiana Volosozhar and Stanislav Morozov, currently ranked seventh, beat both Russian couples at the ISU Grand Prix Final, finishing fourth.

The couple was also fourth at the 2008 European Championships and has an excellent chance of gaining the podium this season.

Ice Dancing

With the withdrawal of top-ranked French 2008 world ice dancing champions, Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder due to an injury to Delobel, the way is open for Russia's Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin to repeat as European champions this season.

The couple, second in the icenetwork.com world rankings, will be challenged by teammates Jana Khokhlova and Sergei Novitski, the seventh-ranked dance team.

Khokhlova and Novitski, who won bronze medals at both the European and World Championships last season, beat Domnina and Shabalin at the Cup of Russia but had to with draw from the ISU Grand Prix Final due to illness.

This could be the year that Italy's Federica Faiella and Massimo Scali, ranked fifth in the icenetwork.com standings, finally reach the podium at the European Championships.

The couple, who have been in the top eight at Europeans since 2003 and just missed the podium last year with a fourth-place finish, made their first ISU Grand Prix Final this season, finishing fourth.

The new French dance champions, eighth-ranked Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, were fifth at Europeans last season and have a chance at a medal if the favorites falter.

Great Britain's Sinead Kerr and John Kerr, tenth in the world rankings, actually scored higher than all of the other dancers except the top two Russian teams this year.

Sixth at Europeans last season, the Kerrs could move into the top three with a solid performance.