Shcherbakova's training mates Kamila Valieva and Daria Usacheva sit in the top three as Alexandra Trusova and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva chase podium.
No Russian Grand Prix? No problem for two-time and reigning national champion Anna Shcherbakova.
The 16-year-old withdrew from last month's Rostelecom Cup, cutting out an important tune-up event for the Russian national figure skating championships, but Friday (25 December) she showed that was no issue for her as she notched an 80.31 to lead after the short program in Chelyabinsk.
Training mates Kamila Valieva (79.99) and Daria Usacheva (76.72) rounded out the top three, with Alexandra Trusova and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva on the outside looking in, scoring 75.76 and 73.56, respectively.
The top four are separated by less than five points, setting up a potential showdown in the free skate, where quadruple jumps could become the key to a national title.
While Shcherbakova has the bump of being the leader after the short program, it's not by much. Valieva and Usacheva went 1-2 at the world junior championships this past year, and Valieva - who fell on her attempted triple Axel in her short program - was near even with Shcherbakova in program components (artistic) marks, 37.80 to 37.54.
That means the title could come down to who brings their best - or most consistent jumping - to the free skate on Saturday. Trusova and Shcherbakova are both known for their quads, while Valieva can hit them, as well. Tuktamysheva has a triple Axel and has said she'd like to try a quad at nationals, though her recent battle with COVID-19 could make that more physically difficult in the free skate.
It's only Valieva among the top five who does not possess a quad jump in her arsenal.
Physicality could be an issue for Shcherbakova in the free skate, as well, the teen seen breathing heavily at the conclusion of the two minute, 50 second short program. She withdrew from Rostelecom Cup last month, citing pneumonia.
Trusova, who formerly trained with Shcherbakova in the Eteri Tutberidze camp, fell several times in the Rostelecom free skate last month on attempted quads. Her coach, Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko, was shaking his head in frustration with the judges when her scores came through after her short program Friday.
While the World Championships are still set to go on in March in Stockholm, the national championships in Russia has generally - though not exclusively - been used as the selection grounds for the worlds team. The European Championships, usually held in late January, were recently canceled due to COVID-19 safety precautions.
Shcherbakova and Trusova, both of whom won two Grand Prix golds last season, did not get to compete at worlds this past March due to the pandemic. Tuktamysheva, 23, is the 2015 world champion, though her stated goal in an interview with the Olympic Channel is Beijing 2022, having missed out on the Winter Olympic Games in 2014 and 2018.
A battle with COVID as well as back issues set Medvedeva out of nationals, while Zagitova has opted out of the season as a whole, currently focusing on hosting a skating-themed Russian TV show.
With the plethora of talent in Russia, it could come down to timing: Medvedeva was the two-time and reigning world champion when Zagitova burst onto the senior scene in 2017. Though, no doubt, each skater in Chelyabinsk will do their best to walk away with a coveted national title.