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Sestriere, Italy Dec. 10, 2001 (AP by Jeff Israely)--Janica Kostelic had low expectations in her return to competition after off-season knee surgery. After a hesitant first run, the defending World Cup slalom champion couldn't hide her disappointment.

The usually aggressive Kostelic had hoped for a top-20 finish in her comeback race at the Sestriere slalom. Instead, a cautious first run left the 19-year-old Croatian in 37th place and out of the field for the second run in Sunday's second slalom race of the season.

``I have lost a lot training,'' Kostelic said. ``And I have to train much more to make things better.''

The day belonged to Sweden's Anja Paerson, who won her second career World Cup race.

Paerson won with an overall time of 1 minute, 32.54 seconds, nearly a half-second faster than Finland's Tanja Poutiainen, who moved up after an 11th-best time in the first run.

Switzerland's Sonja Nef, the defending giant slalom World Cup champion and slalom runner-up, had a wild but fast second run to finish third in 1:33.13 at Sestriere, which will host alpine competition for the Turin-based 2006 Winter Olympics.

Kostelic, the 2000-2001 slalom and overall World Cup champion from Croatia, was conservative in her first run back in competition after injuring her right knee at last season's final World Cup event in Are, Sweden.

The 19-year-old Kostelic, who won every slalom World Cup race last season until Are, said before the race that she was not fully recovered from the third of three off-season operations in September.

``It wasn't that perfect, but I'd expected to race this way,'' Kostelic said. ``I felt I was slow, but I thought that slalom courses were in curves, but it was straight here.''

It was the second career World Cup slalom win for Paerson, after a 1999 victory at Mammoth in California. She finished second at Sestriere last season.

``I always race well here. There's something about this hill,'' she said. ``I wanted to come out and show everyone that I am in good shape and that I will fight for the overall slalom title.''

The 20-year-old Swede led with a 46.84-second first run, and was the last top-10 skier with a chance to top Poutiainen, who had the fastest second run, and finished with an overall time of 1:32.95.

It was the best career finish for the 21-year-old Poutiainen, whose best previous showing was a sixth place last season in Semmering.

``I made a little mistake on the first run, but I knew that I could be very fast without any mistakes on the second,'' she said.

Norway's Trine Bakke finished fourth to complete a successful day for Scandinavian skiers.

Nef moved into third place in the World Cup standings and dedicated her race to countryman Silvano Beltrametti, who was paralyzed from the chest down after a crash during a World Cup downhill on Saturday.

France's Laure Pequegnot, winner of the season's first slalom event at Copper Mountain, finished seventh after a mediocre first run, but will maintain her lead in the discipline standings.

Kristina Koznick was the top American finisher, placing eighth after a sharp second run.

Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press

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