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Carolina Kostner takes European lead

SHEFFIELD, England -- Carolina Kostner halted the Russian march at the European figure skating championships on Friday by grabbing a narrow lead in the women's competition in her bid to capture a fourth continental gold.

The 24-year-old Italian justified her tag as favorite by scoring 63.22 points in a graceful routine set to Dmitri Shostakovich's "Allegretto."

Kiira Korpi of Finland was second,with 61.80 heading into Saturday's free skate as Russia was bumped down the leaderboard for the first time this week, with Ksenia Makarova in third and Alena Leonova sixth.

The Russians were left disappointed in a tense finale to the ice dance, too.

Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev held a slender lead of 0.17 points after the short dance but they couldn't hold off the challenge of Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat, who rallied in the free dance to regain their title.

The French pair finished on 164.18 points to beat Bobrova and Soloviev by 3.95 points. Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia claimed bronze, the country's fifth medal at the championships after Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov led a Russian sweep in the pairs on Friday.

Artur Gachinski and six-time European champion Evgeni Plushenko could add to that haul on Saturday. They occupy the top two spots after the men's short program, with the free skate set to be a head-to-head between the master and his apprentice.

Kostner, the European champion in 2007, '08 and '10, was beaten to a fourth title by the now-retired Sarah Meier of Switzerland last year.

She isn't quite at the stage to follow Meier in hanging up her skates but Kostner knows this may be the last chance to be competitive at a major tournament, and she took her opportunity well at the Motorpoint Arena.

"I told myself, 'This is your 10th Europeans, simply enjoy it -- who knows if you can still compete at Europeans next year," said Kostner, who was strong with her jumps and typically elegant with her spins and combinations.

A slew of budding Russians are about to come off the production line in time for next year's Europeans, giving them much-needed exposure before the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. They include 15-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, already a three-time national champion, as well as Elizaveta Tukamisheva and Julia Lipnitskaia.

They are too young to compete at this year's Europeans, however, leaving Makarova and Leonova as their representatives in Sheffield.

Makarova scored 57.55 points but Leonova, who was fourth at the worlds, under-rotated her triple toe-triple toe, wobbled on her triple flip but before seeing the level of difficulty of her flying sit spin downgraded to level one.

"I skated last and felt the pressure a bit," Leonova said.

The experienced Kostner didn't feel the pressure in the slightest, holding up well under the weight of expectation.

"I felt a bit unwell just before flying to Sheffield but I told myself to stay calm. So far, everything has gone well," the world's top-ranked female skater said.

Impressing the judges with an opening triple toe-triple toe, the only mistake came at the back-end of her performance when she misjudged the change foot combination spin and was docked points accordingly.

Widely regarded as a strong free skater, Kostner -- a silver medalist at the 2008 worlds -- looks a good bet to go on and claim back the vacant title.

Korpi, a two-time bronze medalist in the Europeans, under-rotated in the triple toe to lose precious points but was flawless otherwise, with her fleet-footed display during her routine to "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" wowing the biggest crowd of the week and earning her a season-best total.

"It was absolutely the best for me this season," Korpi said. "I felt nervous. I have had a rough season ... and my preparation for this competition wasn't ideal so I wanted to come here and not think about my placements."

At 19, Makarova may yet struggle to qualify for another Europeans, such is Russia's strength of depth among its juniors.

She made the most of her chance in an elegant display to "Maria and the Violin's String" but wobbled on her opening jump, the triple toe-triple toe, to lose ground.

The ladies competition has been Russia's bugbear in recent years, with its last winner coming in 2006 in Lyon when Irina Slutskaya won the last of her seven titles.