What looked to be an up-for-grabs ice dance podium at the 2013 European Championships has become that much more unpredictable as 26 teams from 21 countries head to Zagreb, Croatia, the city which last hosted this event in 2008. Russia went gold-bronze that time with Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin and Jana Khokhlova & Sergei Novitski, respectively. Isabelle Delobel & Olivier Schoenfelder of France took silver.

A late withdrawal from two-time and reigning champions, France’s Nathalie Pechalat & Fabian Bourzat due to an injury to Bourzat now clears the way for some team to become a first-time European champion. Bourzat is sidelined with a partially torn adductor muscle, but Pechalat plans on making the trip to Zagreb as the French team leader.

In the off-season, Russia’s Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitry Soloviev switched coaches to train with Alexander Zhulin and during this season have shown changes in not only their skating, but also in their styling. Bobrova & Soloviev won the short program at this event in 2012, surprising everyone, but they were unable to hold the lead. The two-time European silver medalists had a disappointing free dance at December’s Grand Prix Final, so the couple will need two strong performances in Zagreb for a podium finish.

Fellow Russians Elena Ilinykh & Nikita Katsalapov won their first ISU senior championships medal at the 2012 European Championships. Rebounding from a seventh place finish in the short, the team claimed the bronze. Ilinykh & Katsalapov ended last season with a fifth place finish at the World Championships, but are still finding their way this season. Their free dance to music from the Broadway musical Ghost has been met with mixed reviews, especially by fans. A repeat of their placement from 2012 is possible, but a team from Italy may have other ideas.

13RUSNATS-SD-RT-2742-JK 595Just .03 stood between Anna Cappellini & Luca Lanotte and the podium in 2012. Cappellini & Lanotte beat both Bobrova & Soloviev and Ilinykh & Katsalapov at the Grand Prix Final, finishing a surprising fourth. The Italians have been working with Igor Shpilband this season and have improved their competition consistency. Both their short and free dances have been well-received by the judges and fans, and it would not be a shock to find them at the top step of the podium at the end of the week.

Ekaterina Riazanova & Ilia Tkachenko of Russia (pictured) were alternates to the Grand Prix Final in 2012. After finishing a disappointing fifth in the short dance at the 2013 Russian National Championships, Riazanova & Tkachenko rebounded to take the bronze and earn their trip to Croatia. The team has finished sixth and fifth, respectively, at the last two European Championships. They have also been working with Igor Shpilband this season, and his influence has affected both their style and their skating quality positively. Though their free dance to music from The Godfather has been successful for them, we wish we could see the Pink Floyd free dance that was their initial free program choice for this season.

There are a number of teams who are capable of leaping into the fray if any of the top contenders falter, including Penny Coomes & Nick Buckland of Great Britain, Italians Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri, and Germans Nelli Zhiganshina & Alexander Gazsi. Not to be forgotten are Julia Zlobina & Alexei Sitnikov who have improved their placements and performances at every outing this season. Germany’s second team, Tanja Kolbe & Stefano Caruso were hampered by injuries this season. This event will be a good test for them.

The event gets under way on Wednesday, January 23, with the short dance and the free dance is contested on Friday. Fingers crossed that the French skaters receive their luggage that didn’t arrive with them in Zagreb, and that all competitors–and their baggage–make it to Croatia on time.