Taking advantage of the withdrawal of their main rivals, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov moved within sight of a first major title by leading the pairs competition after the short program at the European figure skating championships on Wednesday in Sheffield, England.

Heading a Russian sweep of the podium positions, Volosozhar and Trankov scored a season-best 72.80 points in a near-flawless routine to the chilled strains of Evanescence's Bring Me Back To Life to lead by nearly six points ahead of  Thursday's free skate.

They won't have a better chance to capture a first major gold, with the event deprived of the defending champions.

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany were regarded as the favourites coming into a competition they'd won four of the past five years, but a flare-up of Savchenko's recent leg injury led to pulling out at the last minute.

"It is a shame," the 28-year-old Trankov said. "We wanted to compete against them. It is a little demoralizing for us. We had to refocus without the motivation of possibly beating the three-time world champions."

Their disappointment didn't show out on the ice.

In a fluid, energetic program, their only error came on the throw triple flip when the 25-year-old Volosozhar — formerly of Ukraine and dressed head to toe in black, like her partner — touched the ice with both hands to correct her landing.

They still beat their previous best in the segment this season by 1.23 points, topping both technical marks and program components in a three-minute package of elegance at the half-full Motorpoint Arena.

"We are pleased with the score, but I am not completely satisfied with my throw triple flip — I made an error," said Volosozhar, who put the mistake down to being thrown "too high" by Trankov. "Overall it was an OK skate."

Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov, the current Russian champions and bronze medalists at last year's Europeans, placed second on 66.89 points. Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov were third on 58.66.

Despite not the slightest hint of a wobble, both pairs still failed to overtake Volosozhar and Trankov, who performed a more difficult routine.

"We won't relax now, there is another day to come," said Larionov, who described his display as "scratchy" despite the judges' high scores. "We have another job to do, which is to show what we have worked on and give a strong performance."

Italian pair Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek were fourth on 54.38, just ahead of Mayline Hausch and Daniel Wende of Germany with 54.03.

The loss of Savchenko and Szolkowy came as a blow on the opening day of the finals.

In performing a pair spin in practice only hours before the start of the short program, Savchenko aggravated an injury to her left thigh that she hurt in a fall on a throw jump in a training session on Jan. 12 in Germany.

"The risk is too high to aggravate the injury further," coach Ingo Steuer said. "It was a difficult decision for us."

It leaves the path clear for a Russian sweep, which would be a welcome boost to a country hosting the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

"It would have been interesting to compete against them," Trankov said.

The short-dance segment in the ice dance is later Wednesday, with Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat of France favoured to retain the title.