Figure skating-Plushenko returns to ice with record score

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By Sonia Oxley

TALLINN (Reuters) - Yevgeny Plushenko marked his return to major competition with a record score at the European figure skating championships Wednesday, sending a clear message of intent before next month's Vancouver Olympics.

The Russian broke the men's short program 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 drew the biggest cheers of the day when he scored 91.30 points, surpassing the record of 90.66 that he set four years ago.

French holder Brian Joubert, who had the spectators clapping and stamping along, was in second with 88.55 after downgrading a planned triple toeloop to a double in a combination. Compatriot Yannick Ponsero was third with 82.40 before Thursday's free skate.

Former double world champion Stephane Lambiel's comeback was not as successful as Plushenko's. Although he showed all his old fancy footwork and sublime spins in his knee-high boots, his stumble on the quadruple toeloop cost the Swiss points.

His 77.75 drew collective murmurs of disapproval from his cowbell-ringing fans expecting higher and put him fifth behind Michal Brezina of Czech Republic.

Plushenko had problems landing the quadruple in practice earlier in the day but he dusted himself down and shook his long blonde hair to produce a performance that judges made no deductions on.

"I finally skated clean today, of course I am so happy," he told reporters.

"I think it was the best performance of the season. I had a few inner doubts (after the morning's practice) but I told myself just to go out and do it, I pushed myself. Today I beat my best score but I won't be euphoric. Tomorrow is another day."

The men return to the ice Thursday for the free skate, while later Wednesday the pairs medals will be decided.

(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)