Clement Noel was quickest on the first run of the World Cup slalom event at Levi on Sunday

Helsinki (AFP) - Frenchman Clement Noel made a strong return to competition on Sunday after time out with a back injury, securing first place in the first run of the World Cup slalom opener at Levi, Finland.

The 22-year-old, who has won three of his last five slalom races, finished in 54.55 seconds thanks to some nimble turns over the last third of the course.

Britain’s Dave Ryding, who last year enjoyed one of his best seasons placing eighth in the slalom, finished 0.39 seconds behind Noel in second.

Switzerland’s Ramon Zenhaeusern took third spot with 55.21 seconds.

Places on this year’s podium are very much up for grabs after the retirement last season of Austrian superstar Marcel Hirscher, who dominated the sport with eight consecutive overall World Cup titles.

Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen, a favourite for Sunday, placed a disappointing fourth after the first run.

Meanwhile French hopeful Alexis Pinturault, who won the giant slalom three weeks ago in Soelden, failed to shine in the Arctic darkness with a finish of 2.48 seconds behind the leader, denying him a place on the second run.