SHEFFIELD, England - Artur Gachinski proved himself a worthy successor to Evgeni Plushenko, upstaging his mentor to lead a Russian 1-2 in the men's short program at the European figure skating championships on Thursday.
Plushenko appeared to be headed into Saturday's free skate with a decisive lead, despite his decision not to do a quadruple jump to protect his aching knees and back. But Gachinski beat the 2006 Olympic champion by the narrowest of margins, his score of 84.80 points a mere 0.09 ahead of Plushenko.
The 18-year-old was the only one of the top men to do a clean quad, and he thrilled the crowd with a mixture of poise, exuberance and fancy footwork in an ebullient performance to "Saint Louis Blues."
"I think this was my best ever skate. I did all the jumps, the spins and the footwork as I had planned," said Gachinski, whose eye-catching shock of blonde hair marks him out as a doppleganger for Plushenko.
Russia has been looking for someone to replace Plushenko, a triple Olympic medallist and three-time world champion, and it might have found him in Gachinski. After winning the bronze at last year's world championships — Russia's first medal since Plushenko won the last of his three world titles in 2004 — he is in the driver's seat to claim a first major title.
Hampered by injury, Plushenko said he couldn't have done any more in his showy routine set to the emotional "Storm" by Yanni.
"I'm pleased with the performance considering the circumstances. A program without a quad was like a trip into the past," the 29-year-old Plushenko said.
Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic, the 2008 European champion, was third (81.14 points), just ahead of emerging star Javier Fernandez of Spain (80.11).
In the pairs competition, overnight leaders Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov produced a sublime performance to the "Black Swan" soundtrack in the free program to power to gold and a first major title.
On an all-Russian podium, they finished on 210.45 points, 16.66 clear of Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov. Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov won the bronze medal on 171.81 points.
Plushenko has been highly critical of rivals who fail to attempt a quad, famously criticizing Evan Lysacek after the American beat him to gold at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
"If the Olympic champion doesn't know how to jump a quad, I don't know," Plushenko said at the time. "Now it's not men's figure skating, now it's dancing."
Yet Plushenko was in no fit state in Sheffield to practice what he preaches.
"It was either doing a program without the quad or not competing, and I want to finish this competition," he said.
That he is still in contention for yet another European gold is testament to his enduring class — and the fallibility of most of his main challengers.
A master at thrilling audiences for the past decade, Plushenko hasn't lost the art of playing the showman.
Enticing the judges by circling in front of them before his routine, he was all smiles as he gave a performance full of energy and expression. At one point, he aimed a kick in front of a TV camera at the end of the rink, with his mouth wide open.
His jumps were largely spot on, too, with a triple axel particularly impressing the judges. There was no quadruple toe loop, however, as Plushenko — not wanting to aggravate his injuries — decided to start off with a triple lutz instead.
"When I do the quad toe, I need three or four minutes to recover from the pain," Plushenko said.
The bouquets rained down on the ice and many in the crowd rose to their feet as Plushenko lapped up the applause, despite scoring around six points fewer than his short-program total at the 2010 Olympics — his last major tournament.
That gave his rivals a chance to keep pace but, one by one, they messed up.
Defending champion Florent Amodio of France, who was fifth on 78.48, wobbled after a quad salchow. Compatriot Brian Joubert, the 2007 world champion, fell on a quadruple toeloop and other errors left him 10th, likely out of contention for the podium.
Fernandez tumbled after a triple axel and stumbled after a triple lutz. Michal Brezina, fourth at the 2011 worlds, under-rotated on a quad salchow.
"To be honest, I think my rivals gave me a big present today," Plushenko said.
Gachinski was the only one to capitalize.
Not only did the teenager score 15.83 from his opening quad toe-triple toe combination, the bronze medallist from the 2011 worlds also received level-4 scores from judges for his footwork in a flying camel spin, change foot sit spin and change foot combination spin.
Both Gachinski and Plushenko are coached by Alexei Mishin, who chose to laud the veteran.
"Today I am happy about Artur but especially happy about Evgeni — after one or two years away, he is able to compete again, with just one leg," Mishin said.
Volosozhar and Trankov held a lead of 5.91 points from the short program and built on that advantage by top-scoring in the free skate, scoring 137.65 points to give Bazarova and Larionov, who went out on the ice last, little chance of making up the deficit.
The three Russian teams took full advantage of the absence of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, the reigning champions and favourites. An injury to Savchenko meant they had to pull out hours before Wednesday's short program.