Russians win pairs gold, Plushenko leads

By Sonia Oxley

TALLINN (Reuters) - Russia's Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov upset the world champions to win gold in the pairs at the European figure skating championships on Wednesday, while Yevgeny Plushenko stole the show in the men's event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy had been seeking their fourth successive continental crown but a stumble on the throw triple flip and a double salchow instead of a triple ruined their chances.

The Russian pair, who were runners-up last year and trailed the Germans after the short program, were light-footed and perfectly in time in a very technical free program that brought their rattle-waving fans to their feet.

"It was very unexpected but very nice," Smirnov said in a rinkside interview after a win that came three weeks before the Vancouver Olympics.

The Russians, who made a small error on their triple toeloop, scored 213.15 points compared to the Germans' 211.72. Russia's Maria Mukhortova and Maxim Trankov took bronze for the second year in a row with 202.03.

"Of course we are little bit disappointed, but not too much; of course we came here to win and to skate clean. We did some small mistakes but the rest of the program was quite good," Szolkowy told a news conference.

Kavaguti, who gave up her up Japanese citizenship to skate for Russia, said she had enjoyed hearing her new national anthem on the podium but added: "Next time I want to sing it."


The day's main talking point, however, was Plushenko marking his return to major competition with a record score in the short program, sending a clear message of intent before Vancouver.

The Russian broke the record he set on his way to gold at the 2006 Turin Olympics -- the last big event he skated in before taking a break.

With a rousing program that included a quadruple toeloop-triple toeloop combination, the 27-year-old scored 91.30 points, surpassing the record of 90.66 he set four years ago.

French holder Brian Joubert, who had spectators clapping and stamping along, was in second with 88.55 and compatriot Yannick Ponsero was third with 82.40 before Thursday's free skate.

Swiss former double world champion Stephane Lambiel's comeback was not as successful as Plushenko's. He showed all his old fancy footwork and sublime spins in his knee-high boots but his stumble on the quadruple toeloop put him fifth.

The men return to the ice on Thursday for the free skate, while ice dancers will also be in action in the original dance.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)