Russia's hand strengthened by experience and youth

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Ice skating

Russia, depleted by the late withdrawal of Olympic champion Alexei Urmanov, dominated qualifying for the men's event as the European Figure Skating Championships began in a low key in Sofia yesterday.

Urmanov withdrew earlier in the weekend, because of conjunctivitis, but is expected to be fit for the World Championships in Edmonton, Alberta, in March.

Urmanov's absence deprives Russia of one of their top gold medal hopes even though Ilya Kulik is back to defend his title.

Kulik was joined in the main event by compatriots Igor Pashkevich and 15-year-old world junior champion Alexei Yagudin, who finished first and second in their qualifying group yesterday.

Pashkevich has never made an impact at world level while Yagudin appears to have the jumps but not the style to be a contender yet.

Kulik was among seven skaters who were exempt from qualifying because they finished in the top 10 last year. But 25 skaters went through their free programmes in two qualifying groups for the remaining 23 places in the starting field of 30 in the main event on Wednesday.

Britain's Neil Wilson finished third in his group to join his countryman Steven Cousins, an automatic qualifier. The two Britons will now be aiming to finish among the leading 24 so as to advance to the final free skating.