Romania wins European title

BRUSSELS -- Romania won the team competition at the European gymnastics championships Saturday, defeating defending champion Russia and Aliya Mustafina, who returned after a long injury layoff.

Romania, the 2008 champion, finished with 176.288 points. Russia was second at 175.536, and Italy took the bronze.

"It was a good rehearsal for London. We saw the Russians, now we have to see the Americans and the Chinese," coach Octavian Bellu said of the toughest challengers for gold at the London Olympics.

Romania was led by Catalina Ponar, a triple gold medalist at the 2004 Olympics, and 15-year-old Larisa Iordache, a rookie who nailed her international coming-out tournament.

Mustafina had hoped to re-establish herself as the favorite to beat in London after coming back from a left knee injury. However, she left Brussels without a single gold.

She had too many errors during the week, but finished with a solid uneven bar performance.

Russia's Anastasia Sidorova fell off the balance beam halfway through her hesitant routine, and her two other teammates also had wobbly routines. At the same time, Romania had three strong vaults to build a big early lead of almost four points.

"We also had a fall, we are all human beings," Bellu said.

If Russia was counting on a revival from former world champion Mustafina, it was mistaken. Two years ago, she was the sport's superstar at 16 before the knee injury hobbled her last year. And her return sometimes has been painful to watch.

She had the worst outing of her career during qualifying Thursday, and her start on the floor exercise Saturday included stepping out of bounds and some fumbling tumbles. Instead of inspiring her team, Mustafina slowed its progress up the ranking with the worst performance of all three Russians on the floor.

Ponor used an overpowering performance on the beam to effectively nail the competition for Romania.

Iordache established herself as the coming star of the event, despite a fall off the beam. Iordache finished with the best floor exercise of the competition to give Romania gold.

"Larissa has all the qualities to clinch great results," Bellu said. "It was her first time in a big competition like that, but she did really well."