Preview Brussels, Belgium

European champions Lalli and Britton face strong Kenyan challenge in Brussels

Andrea Lalli wins the senior men's title at the European Cross Country Championships (Mark Shearman)Andrea Lalli wins the senior men's title at the European Cross Country Championships (Mark Shearman) © Copyright

Brussels, Belgium – The famous and well-established IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting in Brussels traditionally offers the newly crowned European champions the first chance to defend their recently earned honours. This year at the IRIS Lotto Crosscup event, Italy’s Andrea Lalli will be challenged by strong Kenyans such as Gilbert Kirui and Kenneth Kipkemoi while Ireland’s Fionnuala Britton faces Lydiah Chepkurui, one of the best Kenyan distance runners of 2012.

Lalli returns to savour his ‘magic soil’

Andrea Lalli was a dominant winner of his continental title at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Szentendre, just outside the Hungarian capital Budapest, two weeks ago. In sub-zero temperatures on a frozen circuit, he won by 10 seconds and without giving the impression that he had to really push very hard to come home first.

The Brussels venue, with its mud and steep hills, is also a favourite for the red-haired Italian.

In 2008, Lalli won the European under 23 cross country title in the Parc de Laeken and in 2009 he surprisingly beat the all the top African contenders at this race and he will be aiming to repeat his victory from three years ago in the shadow of the famous Brussels Atomium.

However, it seems unlikely that Lalli will cruise to victory on Sunday the way he did in Szentendre.

Gilbert Kirui may still be only 18 but is the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships 3000m steeplechase silver medallist and should be a threat, as will his compatriot Kenneth Kipkemoi, a sub-27 minutes runner over 10000m this year who finished second in the high quality Spanish race in Venta de Banos last Sunday.

Alex Kibet finished third in Brussels 12 month ago and is another Kenyan who cannot be discounted.

Among the other Europeans on the start line alongside Lalli are France’s Hassan Chahdi, who took the silver medal behind the Italian on the European stage two weeks ago, Great Britain’s James Wilkinson, a medallist in the under 23 race at the European Cross Country Championships for the last two years and Belgium’s in-form local favourite Bashir Abdi, who was ninth in Szentendre.

Chepkurui set to battle with Britton

At the age of 28, this summer Lydiah Chepkurui set a 3000m Steeplechase personal best of 9:14.98.  A prolific racer over the barriers, this was one of eight steeplechases that Chepkurui finished inside 9:30 this year.

If the Kenyan can demonstrate that level and consistency on the historically tough and challenging cross country course in Brussels, then she could have a chance of defeating Britton.

However, the Irishwoman clearly has the heart and soul of a traditional cross country runner and showed her competitive mettle by becoming the first women to successfully defend her European senior title two weeks ago.

Britton also raised her confidence this year clocking 31:29.22 on her 10000m debut in Stanford, although her outings over the distance at the European Athletics Championships and Olympic Games were to prove a slight disappointment.

Another current European cross country champion in action on Sunday will be Great Britain’s Jess Coulson.

The 22-year-old fulfilled her role as favourite in the under 23 race by winning comfortably by nine seconds, taking control from the halfway point. She has already beaten Britton this winter Britton when the pair finished third and fourth at the opening IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting at Atapuerca, near the Spanish city of Burgos, on 11 November.

Ethiopia will be represented by Elini Gebriwoth and Sifan Hassan, while local Belgian hopes will rest with Almensh Belete, who finished fourth at the European Cross Country Championships.

Ivo Hendrix for the IAAF