4th career win sends Noel top of slalom standings

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              Switzerland's Ramon Zenhaeusern competes during an alpine ski, men's World Cup slalom in Zagreb, Croatia, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Gabriele Facciotti)
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ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Clement Noel returned to winning ways Sunday, shrugging off the disappointment of failing to finish a race in front of his French home crowd three weeks ago.

Watched by 8,000 spectators on the Sljeme hill, Noel came from behind to win the first men’s World Cup slalom of 2020.

Fourth after the opening leg, Noel edged first-run leader Ramon Zenhaeusern of Switzerland by 0.07 seconds for his first win of the season and fourth overall.

“It’s really amazing,” Noel said. “The race was really, really perfect. There are so many people here and the atmosphere was incredible. What a way to start 2020.”

Alex Vinatzer of Italy was 0.29 back in third for his first career podium result, while Austria’s Mario Matt, who was second behind Zenhaeusern after the first leg, failed to finish his final run.

Henrik Kristoffersen and Alexis Pinturault, who won the two previous slaloms this season, both failed to recover from disappointing opening runs and finished 19th and ninth, respectively.

“I can be proud of what I did today. It was a tight race but it was a good race,” Noel said. “I knew if I did no mistake I could be the fastest.”

Zenhaeusern led Noel by 0.27 seconds but lost fractions of his advantage with each split time in his final run.

“In the end I have to be happy. It was close, it was tight, it was only seven hundredths,” said the Swiss skier, who was also looking for his fourth career victory, after winning two city events and one slalom – in Kranjska Gora near the end of the 2018-19 campaign.

Noel started the season by finishing runner-up to Kristoffersen in Levi in November but skied out of the first run of his “home” slalom in Val d’Isere last month.

“In Val d’Isere it was a big disappointment,” Noel said. “I wanted not a revenge but to cross the finish line is a good point, especially when you win the race.”

The 22-year-old Frenchman had his breakthrough in the final two months of last season.

Having not been on a World Cup podium before, he finished runner-up in Adelboden in January before winning races in Wengen, Kitzbuehel and Soldeu.

Noel went top of the slalom standings with 180 points, five clear of Olympic champion Andre Myhrer, who placed fourth Sunday.

The retirement of Marcel Hirscher has left the slalom season title wide open. The Austrian record eight-time overall champion won the discipline globe six times in the last seven years, with Kristoffersen as the only other winner, in 2016.

The three races so far this season have produced three different winners.

“Marcel was a little better than everyone. He was the big guy, the best skier in the world for so many years. It’s good to have new faces on the podium,” Noel said, before adding with a smile: “Sometimes it’s good that Marcel is not here anymore.”

Kristoffersen was leading the standings going into the race, but he dropped to fourth.

The Norwegian and Pinturault were among the many racers in the first run who got in trouble on a snow bump with a red gate right behind it.

Kristoffersen nearly skied out and carried a deficit of 1.50 seconds into his second run, where he failed to make up the deficit.

Pinturault was initially disqualified for allegedly not passing the gate correctly.

However, the Frenchman was reinstated after organizers studied video footage following an appeal by the French team.

Armand Marchant of Belgium posted the fastest time in the second run and finished a career-best fifth.

Marchant returned this season from a long-term injury lay-off. He broke his shin in several places in a crash at the Adelboden giant slalom in January 2017 and needed surgery seven times.

The race on the outskirts of the Croatian capital is the first slalom in a series of six over the next 23 days. The next race is in Madonna di Campiglio in Italy on Wednesday, followed by further stops in Switzerland and Austria.