Tariku Bekele the commanding winner in Llodio (Mikel Salanova) © Copyright
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Tariku Bekele - Farah clash on tap in Amorebieta

Race organisers have assembled a solid collection of the international cross country crème for the ‘53nd Cross Internacional Zornotza’ - EAA permit - which takes place in Amorebieta, Spain, on Sunday (7).

Farah aiming for first European win in seven years – men’s race

In the men’s race, it is very much a matter of recent European Cross Country champion Britain’s Mohamed Farah versus a slew of top African athletes headed by Ethiopia’s Tariku Bekele and Kenya’s Micah Kogo. The 23-year-old Briton startled Europe storming to a commanding win in San Giorgio Su Legnano last 10 December when he put an end to Ukrainian Sergiy Lebid’s reign as the leading cross country runner on the continent. Incidentally, Lebid was the last European winner of this event back in 2000.

Previously to that success, Farah had beaten Kogo at a XC permit meeting held in France the month before and so the Kenyan, who ran the fastest world time for the 10,000m last year with an impressive 26:35.63 clocking in Brussels, will have the opportunity to make amends for that defeat and take revenge on the new Somali-born European champion.

But likely the man to beat on Sunday’s is Tariku Bekele, unbeaten this cross country campaign following two convincing wins on Spanish soil of Llodio (26 November) and Alcobendas (3 December). However, the triumvirate Bekele-Farah-Kogo might see in jeopardy a place in the podium due to the presence of Uganda’s Boniface  Kiprop, the Kenyan pair of Joseph Ebuya and Moses Masai alongside Eritrea’s Ali Abdallah.

The reigning Commonwealth 10,000m champion Kiprop has tasted every honour spot in his four previous and consecutive appearances here, ranking 4-1-3-2 from 2003 to 2006 respectively. Ebuya is the current World 10,000m junior silver medallist who finished fourth just behind Tariku Bekele in the junior’s race at last year’s World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka. In addition, he made a huge improvement on the track to post a 12:58.03 performance in Paris while Moses Masai also took part in the fastest 10,000m event of the year, producing a 27:03.20 PB in Brussels, where he was beaten by Kiprop’s 26:41.95. Zimbabwe’s Cuthbert Nyasango, Australia’s Andrew Letherby and Spain’s 2003 World 3000m steeplechase bronze medallist Eliseo Martín might well complete a classy top-ten.

Women’s race – Willis-Johnson vs. Cheruiyot

The women’s event should witness a thrilling showdown between a pair of athletes who placed among the top eight in Fukuoka: Australia’s Benita Willis-Johnson, who finished fourth at both the long and short course events, and Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot, who was eighth in the short course race. The former is fresh from a runner-up position last 31 December in Madrid (10km road race) when she was timed 32:08 barely eight days after a fine Half-Marathon win Okayama (Japan) in 1:10:01. The 27-year-old Aussie ace will be eager to repeat her 2005 success when she beat, as the then-reigning world champion over the long course, Kenya’s Edith Masai, the short race gold medallist by then.

But Willis-Johnson has since tackled longer distances and is now an Area Marathon record holder thanks to a more than respectable 2:22.36 time set in Chicago last October. For that reason the distance scheduled for the women’s race, 6700m, could well play in favour of the 23-year-old Cheruiyot who snatched an overwhelming victory last 19 November at the EAA Permit held in Soria. Her compatriots Alice Chelangat (10th in Fukuoka, long race) and Mercy Wanjiku (12th) along with Eritrea’s Nebiat Habtemariam will also be on show; the latter finished second last 17 December also on Spanish ground (Valencia) beaten by Britain’s Steph Twell, the 17-year-old new European junior champion. European hopes will be carried by Britain’s Hayley Yelling, who turned 33 on 3 January and recorded a creditable sixth place at the Europeans.

Amorebieta hosted the IAAF World Cross Country championships back in 1993. That year the victors were Kenya’s William Sigei and Portugal’s Albertina Dias while a little-known legend-to be, Britain’s World Marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe placed 18th as a 19-year-old in her international senior debut. For Sunday, weather forecasters predict a sunny and nice day with temperatures ranging from 11 to 19º C.

Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF