Fionnuala Britton will be targeting an unprecedented third Euro XC title. The Irishwoman missed the track season with illness and while a seventh-place finish in Leffrinckoucke marked a solid return to international racing, it also suggested her form is not as good as last year when she finished third in the same pre-champs race. Her team are playing down her chances but Britton, the first European finisher at the World XC Champs in March, is still in good enough shape to challenge for a medal.
Ana Dulce Felix from Portugal has been making steady, if somewhat frustrating progress up the finishing order having placed fifth in 2009, followed by third in 2010 and second to Britton in the last two years. Felix, like Britton, might not be in her best form but she bounced back from a DNF in the New York Marathon with a runner-up finish in Tilburg. Could she go one better this year?
The GB women had a disappointing showing last year with no finishers inside the top-10 but in-form Gemma Steel, the commanding winner of the Trials at Sefton Park, will be in contention for another podium finish after winning bronze in 2011. She’s improved markedly since then and it isn’t unrealistic to suggest she could follow Paula Radcliffe and Hayley Yelling as the third British winner of this title.
Steel is flanked by a strong team including Stephanie Twell, Lauren Howarth and Julia Bleasdale who should put the British team in contention for the overall title.
France narrowly missed out on the team title to Ireland last year and their squad will feature in the battle for individual and team titles. Their squad includes Sophie Duarte, who finished ahead of Britton in Leffrinckoucke, last year’s fifth-placer Laurane Picoche and Clemence Calvin, who took a bronze medal in the under-23 race last year.
Other contenders include Belgium’s Almensh Belete, the winner on home-soil in Roeselare, the Italian duo of Nadia Ejjafini and Elena Romagnolo, former junior winner Karolina Bjerkeli Grovdal from Norway and Meraf Bahta from Sweden.
The only past winner among the entrants is Alemayehu Bezabeh, the gold medallist in 2009 when he outlasted an exhausted Mo Farah, who memorably collapsed after crossing the line some seventeen-seconds in arrears.
Their careers have followed polar-opposite trajectories since that race in Dublin. While Farah has gone on to win five world and Olympic and three European track titles, Bezabeh was arrested as part of ‘Operation Galgo’ on the eve of the 2010 European Cross-Country Championships and soon banned for two years for attempted blood doping.
His two-year suspension expired this year and the Spaniard has since been competitive with some of the top East Africans at cross-country, finishing only nine-seconds adrift of world XC champion Japheth Korir in Atapuerca last month.
Andrea Lalli isn’t defending but Daniele Meucci, one of the most consistent European distance-runners of recent years, could ensure the title remains in Italy although whether he will be a factor might depend on how much he’s recovered from the New York Marathon last month.
Hassan Chahdi has finished fourth and second in the last two years and while his PBs on the track, such as 3:45.45 for 1500m and 13:51.66 for 5000m are modest, the Frenchman is an archetypal cross-country specialist who should not be discounted.
On the other hand, Polat Kemboi Arikan is an accomplished track exponent who has yet to prove himself as a cross-country runner. He was ninth over 10,000m at the Olympic Games last year but could only manage two places better a few months later in Budapest. Can he do better this time?
Andy Vernon, a medallist at under-23 and under-20 level, looked good at the European Trials and the solid under-foot conditions anticipated this weekend will play to his advantage while Tom Farrell, fresh from a decent showing at the NCAA Championships, is another GB contender in a wide-open race.
Bashir Abdi, a top-10 finisher last year and the winner in Roeselare this year, should be in the fray for medals along with Belgian team-mates Jeroen D’Hoedt and Soufiane Bouchikhi, while world 5000m finalist Sindre Buraas from Norway should also show at the front end of the race.
The under-23 category was introduced to facilitate the transition from the juniors but the leading contenders would not look out of place in the senior race which does query the necessity of staging this race. Sifan Hassan, for example, boasts track PBs of 4:03.73 for 1500m and 8:32.53 for 3000m and a 30-second victory over two-time runner-up Ana Dulce Felix in Tilburg illustrates she almost certainly would have been the favourite against the seniors.
One athlete probably quite pleased with an under-23 race is home favourite and last year’s junior winner Amela Terzic. The European under-23 1500m champion and national record-holder at 4:05.69 might struggle with the seniors over 8km but this 6km race should be within the miler’s repertoire.
Charlotte Purdue and Lily Partridge both finished in the top-four at Sefton Park and they will be joined by NCAA third-placer Kate Avery. The team title is within their grasp and individual medals are also there for the taking.
Other names to watch are the German pair of Corinna Harrer and Gesa-Felicitas Krause and European under-23 10,000m champion Gulshat Fazlitdinova from Russia.
Henrik Ingrebrigtsen, a world and Olympic 1500m finalist, ran a well-measured race to claim top honours last year and the Norwegian returns to defend his title.
His main rivals include European under-23 1500m champion Pieter-Jan Hannes from Belgium, European under-23 steeplechase champion Abdelaziz Merzoughi from Spain and last year’s junior runner-up and 8:27 steeplechaser Mitko Tsenov from Bulgaria.
Trials runner-up and renowned fast-finisher Jonny Hay will be a threat if in contention in the closing stages while Richard Goodman will be looking to win his second individual medal after taking silver In the junior race in 2011.
Emelia Gorecka has said her form is better than it was at this point last year and arrives in Belgrade fully confident of signing off her illustrious junior career with a second title.
She filled the one void on her CV by winning a European junior track title over 3000m in Rieti and the 19-year-old faces the winners of the steeplechase Oona Kettunen from Finland and the 5000m Jip Vastenburg from the Netherlands.
Last year’s third-placer Maya Rehberg from Germany and fourth-placer Marusa Mismas from Slovenia, who both won medals in Rieti, will also be among the contenders this weekend.
This should be a formality for Ali Kaya, one of Turkey’s newest imports from Kenya. He won the 10,000m in Rieti by exactly one-minute, front-running to a national junior record of 28:31.16 in tough conditions, before winning the 5000m by 47-seconds.
Top honours could also head to Turkey in the team race, as their squad is backed up by Suleyman Bekmezci, the runner-up to Jake Wightman in the 1500m in Rieti, and steeplechase bronze medallist Ersin Tekal.
The Dini twins, Samuele and Lorenzo, were distant runners-up in the 5000m and 10,000m respectively in Rieti and while Kaya’s margin of ascendancy might not be as formidable at cross-country, the Italians are more likely to be in the hunt for minor medals with Isaac Kimeli from Belgium, Alexandre Saddedine from France and Viktor Bakharev from Russia.
UK Trials winner Jonathan Davies will also be in the fray for individual medals.