Senior men’s preview: Ozbilen and Mechaal headline a star-studded field

Patience pays dividends for Ozbilen in senior men’s race in Samorin
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Kaan Kigen Ozbilen ran a measured race to defeat Spain's Adel Mechaal in the senior men's race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships

In the past four stagings of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships, the individual senior’s men title has been won by a Turkish athlete and two of the last four team titles have also been won by Turkey. Of those four champions, three of them return to Tilburg on Sunday (9) for what could be an epic race.

Kaan Kigen Ozbilen is the newest of those gold medallists, taking a come-from-behind victory by nine seconds in Samorin last year. Ozbilen followed in the footsteps of Aras Kaya and Polat Kemboi Arikan - the winners in 2016 and 2014 respectively - who were also seventh and ninth last year. 

Ozbilen was delighted with his success, saying in the aftermath of victory: “I was injured when I was 10th last year [in 2016] and I am so happy I could make up for it this time.” 

And if any of the these three champions triumph again, they will join the small band of legends of the European Cross Country Championships to have won the title on two or more occasions. 

At the moment that roll-call stands at three: Ukraine’s Sergiy Lebid, with his astonishing nine individual golds; Portugal’s Paulo Guerra, the inaugural champion in 1994 and a runner who went on to win it three more times; and Spain’s Alemayehu Bezabeh who triumphed twice: in 2009 and 2013.

Not since Lebid retained the title in Brussels 2008 has an athlete successfully defended their crown which could provide Ozbilen with even more desire for a repeat performance.

 

When he looks around the field for a race over 10.3km, there will be some familiar faces – and not just among those wearing the Turkish colours.

Adel Mechaal, the silver medallist from 12 months ago, is back again along with former U20 and U23 champion Hassan Chahdi from France who was fourth in the senior race last year. 

Could Mechaal be the man to break the Turkish dominance? He is one the right path having won bronze in 2015 before improving to silver in 2017. 

One of the biggest threats to Ozbilen will be from the Italians who include in their senior squad for the first time one of the great young stars of European athletics: Yemaneberhan Crippa.

At 22, he already has four individual medals from the European Cross Country Championships, with U20 gold in 2014 and 2015 and bronze in the U23 race in 2016 and 2017. 

 

His medal collection grows by the event as he proved this summer when he won 10,000m bronze at the European Championships in Berlin. 

Crippa, who has won eight medals in total, is part of a strong Italian squad which also includes his older brother Nekagenet. The other standout name on their team is Daniele Meucci, the European marathon champion in Zurich four years ago. 

The Crippas are by no means the only brothers racing in the senior men’s race as the Norwegian team is spearheaded by Henrik and Filip Ingebrigtsen. Henrik has the better cross country record of the two, winning the U23 title in 2012 and finished eleventh last year on his return from injury. 

Great Britain won team bronze last year behind Turkey and Spain and their team is headed by trials winner Charlie Hulson and 2016 Olympian Ross Millington, who is back from injury. Andy Vernon is a late withdrawal due to injury. 

Isaac Kimeli, who won the U23 title in Chia two years ago, will lead the Belgian charge while Florian Orth could be Germany’s main man.

The host nation, the Netherlands, have a squad of four: Michel Butter, Khalid Choukoud, Roy Hoornweg and Ronald Schroer. Butter and Choukoud are two of the stalwarts of the Dutch team, both representing the Netherlands when Tilburg first staged the European Cross Country Championships in 2005.

This last individual event of the day consists of six laps of 1500m and a final lap of 1300m where the medals will undoubtedly be decided. The entry-list includes 99 athletes from 26 nations.