The Great Britain and Northern Ireland squad will have a battle on their hands to maintain their domination of the mixed relay title at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Piemonte-La Mandria Park on the outskirts of Turin on Sunday (11).
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Since the entertaining 4x1500m event was inaugurated in Samorin in 2017, the Brits have won three of the four races, temporarily relinquishing the title to Spain in Tilburg in 2018 when they finished out of the medals in fourth place.
Last year they won in Dublin thanks largely to a stunning third leg run by Olympic 800m finalist Alex Bell, who took them from a 12-second deficit in sixth at halfway into a four second lead that Ben West managed to maintain on the anchor leg.
Twelve months on, the defending champions will be fielding a different quartet, Callum Elson and Welsh indoor 800m champion James Heneghan teaming up with Tokyo Olympian Revee Walcott-Nolan and former European U20 800m champion Khahisa Mhlanga.
Italy have yet to figure among the medals – with a highest placing of sixth from the inaugural race in Samorin in 2017 – but the hosts have sufficient talent to challenge for the gold this time round in a squad spearheaded by some of their standout middle distance talents.
Their squad includes Pietro Arese, who finished fourth in the 1500m final at Munich 2022 European Athletics Championships in August, European U23 1500m champion Gaia Sabbatini, who improved her 1500m PB to 4:01.93 this summer, and the runners-up in the two 2km test event races last month, Yassin Bouih and Federica Del Buono, a former European indoor 1500m bronze medallist.
France is without Alexis Miellet, whose 3:34.23 1500m pedigree proved decisive in the three-way battle for the runners-up spot with Belgium and Ireland last year, but their team includes European finalist Azeddine Habz, who boasts a 3:31.74 PB for the 'metric mile' and ran the second leg of France's silver medal-winning team in 2021.
The Belgian squad looks promisingly strong, featuring three members of the quartet that took bronze in Fingal-Dublin: European U23 1500m champion Ruben Verheyden, Vanessa Scaunet and Stijn Baeten.
Ireland’s Olympic 1500m semifinalist Andrew Coscoran will not be short on motivation, having narrowly lost out to Baeten in the tight tussle for third place a year ago. The Irish will travel with hopes of their first podium placing in the event, with Coscoran partnered by Luke McCann, who led at halfway last year, Nadia Power, who finished third in the 2km test race at La Mandria Park last month, and national indoor 1500m champion Georgie Hartigan.
Spain will have high hopes of repeating their 2018 success. Their team includes Solange Pereira, who memorably anchored them to victory in Tilburg four years ago, plus Olympic 800m fifth-placer Adrian Ben and two-time European indoor 1500m bronze medallist Jesus Gomez.
Finland enters a team for the first time and making a championship debut in their quartet will be European 3000m steeplechase champion Topi Raitanen. He will be joined by middle distance specialists Joonas Rinne and Viola Westling, and by steeplechaser Camilla Richardsson, who also runs in the women’s 8km.
Portugal’s team includes Salome Afonso, winner of the women’s 2km test event, and European U23 1500m bronze medallist Isaac Nader, while Denmark’s quartet features 2016 Olympic 400m hurdles semifinalist Stina Troest.
Interestingly, the Croatian team includes Bojana Bjeljac who arrives fresh from setting a Croatian record in the Valencia Marathon. What will she have left in the legs after her 2:23:39 clocking on Sunday?
Simon Turnbull for European Athletics