Figure skating king Fernandez looking good for six-peat

by Nick REEVES
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Spaniard Fernandez in pole for sixth figure skating title

Spaniard Fernandez in pole for sixth figure skating title

Moscow (AFP) - Spanish veteran Javier Fernandez put one hand on a sixth successive European men's figure skating title with a near-flawless short programme in Moscow on Wednesday.

The 26-year-old two-time world champion has danced off with the continental honours every year since Zagreb in 2013.

And just three weeks away from the Pyeongchang Olympics, Fernandez showed he is still Europe's man to beat in his last competitive season, wooing the crowd at Moscow's Megasport rink with an opening quad-triple toe loop combination.

Set to the music from Charlie Chaplin's classic film "Modern Times", Fernandez's routine earned him 103.82 points to gain a substantial lead over Russian teenager Dmitri Aliev on 91.33, a season's best, ahead of Friday's free dance.

Latvia's Deniss Vasiljevs sits third with 85.11 points, with Russia's national champion Mikhail Kolyada a disappointing fourth.

Fernandez finished fourth in Sochi four years ago, but his performance showed he can still dream of securing a first ever Olympic podium.

"My goal for Europeans is to win, because it is important for me, important to keep writing history not only in Europe, but for Spain especially," said the Canadian-based Spaniard.

With American Nathan Chen and Japan's defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu lying in wait, Europe's men appear up against it in South Korea, a point not lost on Fernandez.

"To be on the podium there would be nice, but there are so many strong skaters so that you can't be sure," he said.

"I will leave right after the exhibition and go back to Toronto to prepare for the Olympic Games."

Kolyada, one of the home favourites for the title, cut a frustrated figure at the end of his tango to Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major after stumbling on his opening triple axel.

- Bootlace trouble -

Even so he got a good reception from the partisan home fans, if not from his coach.

"She didn't say anything yet, but her look was severe," said the 22-year-old from Saint Petersburg.

With Russia serving an Olympic ban for state-sponsored doping, Kolyada is expecting to be among a group of his compatriots approved to compete in Pyeongchang as independents under the name "Olympic Athlete from Russia".

Aliev's bold showing in second, meanwhile, was all the more noteworthy given he took to the ice slightly flustered after getting tied up in knots with a bootlace malfunction.

"It was a little nerve-wracking, I ripped my laces while tying them. Maybe that threw me off a little," said the 2017 world junior silver medallist.

While Aliev is still in with a shout of a medal, one man for whom that is an impossibility is Conor Stakelum.

The 24-year-old from Dublin came dead last of the 36 skaters in the men's short programme. But he can still take pride in becoming Ireland's first ever male skater in the 117-year history of the European Championships.

Later, France's Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres held off the Russians to lead the pairs after the short programme.

The 2017 European bronze medallists, performing to Ed Sheeran's Make It Rain, instead made it shine as they produced a season's best 75.52.

"The program was a little hesitant, not the most liberated, but it was clean and we?re very proud of it," reflected James.

They go into Thursday's free dance clear of local duo Natalia Zabiiako and Alexander Enbert (72.95), with Russia's 2014 Olympic silver medallists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov (72.05) placed third.

Russia's defending champions Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov have work to do from fifth with 70.37 points.

The favourites got their routine set to Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 off to a flying start with a perfectly executed triple twist but Tarasova's fall amongst other errors cost them dear.

"We won?t make a tragedy out of it, but we will draw conclusions" said Morozov.