Defending World Cup champion Hirscher hunted by 2 Norwegians

SOELDEN, Austria (AP) Last season Marcel Hirscher beat one Norwegian to win the men's overall World Cup title. This time he might have to beat two.

Together with close friend Aksel Lund Svindal, who is back from a season-long injury layoff, last year's runner-up Kjetil Jansrud plans to start another battle with the Austrian four-time champion when Sunday's giant slalom kicks off the new season.

Add Alexis Pinturault of France, who has finished in the top 10 for four straight years while placing third in the past two seasons, and the quartet of expected favorites for the big crystal globe is complete.

Ready to take on the challenge, Hirscher said Friday he didn't know after summer training how fast he is compared to his rivals.

''It's a kind of thriller,'' the Austrian said. ''Everyone asks me, `Where are you now?' I have no idea. How about Ted (Ligety), Alexis, Kjetil, Henrik (Kristoffersen)? That's challenging me but a lot of pressure will go away on Sunday.''

Hirscher confirmed he will stick to his two strong discplines - slalom and GS - and doesn't plan starts in the speed events.

''A day has only 24 hours. There is not enough training days for me to do all disciplines,'' he said, adding that winning one downhill and one super-G race is a dream he hoped to fulfill later in his career.

For now, the focus will remain on the technical events. And regarding the stiff competition, Hirscher was aware he will have to retain his high level from last season as he clinched both the slalom and GS titles.

''It's always tough to discuss at this time of the year,'' Hirscher replied when being asked about the predicted battle with the Norwegian duo. ''In speed races you can also earn just 100 punts and those two Vikings will be sharing the points.''

Junsrud, however, didn't believe that Svindal's return could cost him decisive points in the speed events.

''If we split first and second place, there will be enough points for both of us,'' he said. ''It will be an issue if Aksel wins and I get 10th but that would be a problem anyway. It's good if another guy gives Marcel pressure and also gives me the pressure to ski even faster. For me it's more important to become more consistent and take away the 18th places.''

Olympic super-G champion Jansrud acknowledged he lost the battle with Hirscher because of his disappointing showing in the giant slalom. The Norwegian scored just 98 points, seven times less than the Austrian's 690.

Jansrud added more GS training to schedule but was wary to overdo it.

''The more GS training you do, the more it's going to affect your super-G and downhill training,'' he said. ''I am competing against GS specialists who train GS every day. Hopefully with some tweaking on the equipment and bringing some good mentality from last year I can take a few more points from GS and make it as interesting as last year.''

An intriguing aspect of the new season will be the impact of Svindal's return.

The 2007 and 2009 overall champion tore his Achilles tendon while playing football a week before last season started. He sat out the entire World Cup season, though he took part in the downhill and super-G races at the world championships in Beaver Creek in February.

The tendon has healed well enough for ski racing, according to the Norwegian.

''It's not a problem as it is in the ski boot,'' he said. ''If I were a track-and-field athlete, I would have a problem now.''

Svindal planned to use Sunday's season-opener to get back the competitive feeling after being sidelined for a whole season.

''In training my GS has been up and down. Some runs are good, some are not. But I need race experience, I must get those extra two percent you need for racing,'' Svindal said. ''To be in the start gate and know that I am one of the guys who can win this race. That is basically my goal, get back to that level.''

He planned to get back to his best again for the first speed races in late November, saying ''in Lake Louise is where I need to be on my A game.''

At least Hirscher won't be racing against him there.

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