By Sonia Oxley
SHEFFIELD, England (Reuters) - Former Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko was in pain, had not competed internationally for two years and had simplified his routine and yet the 29-year-old got the better of most of the next generation on his return to major competition Thursday.
Only fellow Russian Artur Gachinski managed a higher score in the short program at the European championships in Sheffield, scoring just 0.09 points more than the blonde-mopped Plushenko before Saturday's free skate where the medals will be decided.
It is not as if Plushenko is even that fussed about winning, telling reporters with his typical nonchalance: "For me it doesn't matter, I have many titles."
He had after all been forced to abandon the quadruple jump, which he believes every worthy men's champion must pull off, because he is suffering with a knee injury that will require surgery and will rule him out of March's world championships in Nice, France.
It is the very jump that caused so much controversy on Plushenko's last major appearance at the 2010 Vancouver Games, where he declared gold medal winner Evan Lysacek was not a "true champion" because the American had not attempted a quad.
The implication was that he Plushenko, who had included the difficult jumps, should have got more than just the silver.
He also branded men's figure skating without a quad little more than ice dance -- a belief he still holds -- and even he was surprised to find himself in second place going into the long program at these continental championships.
"I think my opponents gave me a present," he told a news conference, referring to stumbles by many of the leading skaters who may have attempted quads but could not pull them off.
"I would do a quad but I can't do it right now. We'll see in a couple of days."
Returning to a major event for the first time since being banned by the International Skating Union (ISU) for taking part in exhibitions without its permission, Plushenko said that without the jump he felt like he was skating in a bygone era.
"A program without a quad was like a trip into the past. Doing a program without a quad is not my level, but I can't do it right now," the 2006 Olympic champion and three-times world champion told reporters.
Competing in Sheffield is not about winning a seventh European crown or even lapping up the attention from his noisy fans, it is all about preparing the ground for an assault on the medals at his home Olympics in Sochi in 2014.
"After this competition I am going to have surgery in Germany, meniscus again, and then I will stop skating for a while and recuperate, then continue next year," he said.
"I can't (compete at the world championships), we did many injections here, they don't work anymore, they don't help me so I can't.
"It is about finishing this competition ... My motivation is the Olympic Games at home in Sochi."
Assuming he recovers well from knee surgery and shakes off a troublesome back, he would go to Sochi at the age of 31 aiming to make it four medals from four Games to add to two silvers and a gold -- and you can bet he will not be entering the ice dance.
(Editing by John Mehaffey)