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Spain's Javier Fernandez in lead at European skate

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Javier Fernandez of Spain began the defense of his European figure skating title with an impressive short program and a six-point lead on Thursday.

Fernandez scored 91.56 points for hitting all of his jumps, and high marks for his spins and step sequence. Sergei Voronov of Russia was second with 85.51 and Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic was third with 83.51.

"It was a joy to skate," said Fernandez, who skated to the playful melody of "Satan Takes A Holiday." The ice dance was won by Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte, who edged Russians Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov by 171.61 points to 170.51 points. Peggy Coomes and Nicholas Buckland of Britain were third.

Last year, Fernandez was second after the short program but his free skate routine was so strong that he won the title by more than 24 points over Florent Amodio of France. Still, he said it was too soon to declare a victory in Budapest, too.

"I feel I have a good chance to win the medal again but every skater coming behind me has a chance to steal it from me," he said. "I feel really strong and I believe in myself." Voronov, whose career stalled in recent years, also had a very clean performance highlighted by a quadruple toe loop and triple toe loop combination.

"I don't think it was my best skate but I'm pleased I beat the nerves and worries I had before," said Voronov, a two-time Russian national champion. Verner was third despite touching the ice with both hands after his first jump, also a quadruple toe loop, which made him postpone the triple toe loop until later in the program when he was able to add it to a triple lutz. All skaters must perform a combination jump in the short program, along with other mandatory elements.

Maxim Kovtun, also of Russia, was the only skater to attempt two quadruple jumps in his program, but he had to cut his quad toe loop to a double, and goes into Saturday's free skate in fourth place. "My practices and the warm-up were all excellent," Kovtun said. "There was just the tiniest fraction of a second in the takeoff for the toe loop where something wasn't right."

All three Russian men in Budapest are in an awkward position, as their best results may not be enough to secure the country's only slot in the men's competition at the Sochi Olympics. Evgeny Plushenko, the country's best male figure skater of the past decade, is expected to do a closed-door performance for a commission from the Russian skating federation on Jan. 21, and his star power may be enough to convince officials.

Plushenko has been critical of Kovtun, whose poor showing at the world championships last year limited the number of Russians allowed a place in Sochi, saying he lacked international experience. Still, Kovtun defeated Plushenko at the Russian champs last month.

Kovtun dismissed the notion that the uncertainty about the Olympics affected his performance. "I should be prepared for any kind of provocations, stories and talk," Kovtun told the Russian agency R-Sport. "All this will take place, while I will skate, so for me it isn't important."

In ice dancing, the free skate finish replicated the standings after the short program, though the Russians had a good chance for victory until a fall by Elena Ilinykh in the twizzle, a series of turns on one foot.

The luster of the ice dance competition was diminished by the absence of two of the world's top pairs. Both the defending European champions, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev of Russia, and the 2011 and 2012 European champions, Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France, skipped Budapest to better prepare for Sochi.

AP writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed.

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