By Alan Baldwin
WHISTLER (Reuters) - Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal had a third Olympic Alpine skiing medal in his sights on Sunday while Bode Miller's hopes of a first gold receded after the downhill leg of the men's super combined.
The tall Svindal, winner of the super-G and silver medalist in the downhill, faced a strong challenge from the powerful Swiss in the afternoon's slalom but was up for the fight after setting the early pace.
"I'm happy with that," he told reporters after powering down the gleaming Dave Murray piste, bathed alternately in bright sunshine and the shade of the surrounding pine forest, in a fastest time of one minute 53.15 seconds.
"It's going to be tough with the slalom guys but I've done my job now and let's see what they can do," he added, punching the air after he crossed the line before giving a thumbs-up to the cameras.
Little-known Italian speed specialist Dominik Paris was the surprise second fastest, 0.39 slower than Svindal, from an unpromising 29th start position.
While he is likely to struggle to live up to that performance in the slalom, Switzerland's Carlo Janka looked a much bigger threat in third place and just half a second off the pace.
Switzerland's new downhill champion Didier Defago was fourth with compatriot Silvan Zurbriggen, silver medalist in slalom at the 2003 world championships, lurking ominously in sixth place and 0.73 behind Svindal.
Miller, also chasing his third medal after collecting a silver in super-G and bronze in downhill, was seventh and 0.76 adrift of Svindal.
The American has not won a slalom since 2004, however, and was clearly disappointed as he caught his breath and glanced up at the timing screen in the finish area.
With fans holding up placards declaring "It's Miller Time," echoing a well-known beer slogan, the American had been 0.26 faster than Svindal after the second intermediate but was 0.16 slower after the third.
"It was quite a good run, I was doing well but I made a mistake and took a lot more air (off a jump) than I had expected and lost a lot of time," he said. "Otherwise it was a pretty solid run.
"If I have a good slalom, I can definitely do it. It is not like I was going to be holding back anyway," he added. "I am going to be going full gas in the slalom."
Croatian Ivica Kostelic looked like an outside medal contender, with his father Ante setting the slalom course. The brother of four-time Olympic champion Janica was ninth after the downhill, with 1.05 seconds to make up.
(Additional reporting by Simon Evans and Patrick Vignal)
(Editing by Jon Bramley)