January 06, 2015

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) Marcel Hirscher beat close friend Felix Neureuther in front of 15,000 spectators at a men's World Cup night race on Tuesday, setting up another Austrian-German duel for this season's slalom title.

The pair moved well ahead in the slalom standings, with Neureuther on 320 - edging Hirscher by just four points. The rest of the field is at least 128 points behind.

Hirscher and Neureuther went 1-2 in the battle for the slalom crystal globe in the past two seasons.

In the first of five men's slaloms this month, Hirscher held on to his commanding opening-run lead.

The three-time overall champion, who also won the previous two editions of the event, finished in a combined time of 1 minute, 55.96 seconds to beat Neureuther by 0.81.

Sebastian-Foss Solevaag of Norway was 1.04 behind in third for his first career World Cup podium.

''We've trained very well the last couple of days,'' said Hirscher, adding he had been using a new ski that helped him bounce back from placing seventh in the previous slalom in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy.

''The last race didn't go well,'' he said. ''I always give my best when I am under pressure.''

The win saw Hirscher overtake Kjetil Jansrud, who usually skips slaloms, at the top of the overall standings. Hirscher has 676 points, with his Norwegian rival on 624.

The victory also made Hirscher the most successful Austrian slalom skier with 15 World Cup wins, after being tied on 14 with Benjamin Raich.

''It's very cool, I am super happy with these successes,'' Hirscher said. ''But I don't want to give it too much importance, otherwise I might lose my hunger for more.''

Hirscher overcame a mistake that nearly saw him ski out of the race in the opening leg. On the icy and slippery Crveni Spust course, Hirscher slid off the race line but managed to recover.

''That was close to going out,'' the Austrian said. ''I can't understand how I am so much ahead.''

Neureuther said he looking forward to ''an amazing month'' of slalom skiing.

''January is very important,'' the German said. ''There are so many classic races. It's so fun for us skiers when so many people come out to watch us.''

The race started with a moment's silence for two junior skiers from the U.S. team who were killed in an avalanche in Austria on Monday, while the American flag was flying half-mast in the finish area.

American skier David Chodounsky, who was third after the opening leg, straddled a gate and failed to finish his second run.

Chodounsky paid tribute to his late team members Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle, pointing to a tape on his helmet carrying the text `Remember BA + RB.'

''It's terrible. The entire U.S. ski team is mourning for them,'' Chodounsky said. ''We're just skiing for them today. They were great guys.''

Chodounsky missed out on a career best finish, coming seventh in a slalom in Val d'Isere, France, last season.

''I am happy with it, I knew I was skiing well and I could be in there somewhere,'' Chodounsky said. ''I was hoping for it. I knew it could happen but I was just waiting for it to happen in a race. I have been training very well so I wanted to show it.''

American teammate Will Brandenburg was the fastest starter in the opening run and led Hirscher by 0.28 at the first intermediate time, but he lost balance and tumbled backward with his skis up in the air before sliding into commercial banners besides the course.

''I was just going to go for it, that's all I wanted to do,'' said Brandenburg, who was unhurt. ''I wanted to fight and that's what I did.''

The men's World Cup travels to Adelboden, Switzerland for a giant slalom on Saturday, followed by a slalom the next day.

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