Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) showed that he is a contender for victory at the Tour of Oman with an aggressive ride and fourth place on Tuesday's stage 2 but tipped Alberto Contador (Team Saxo-Tinkoff) as the favourite to win overall.
Nibali finished fourth on the stage, five seconds down on Peter Sagan (Team Cannondale) in Al Bustan, but made an audacious late attack after chasing down Contador on the high-speed descent to the line.
Contador attacked over the top of the last climb but eventually finished six seconds down on Nibali. Those seconds could make a vital difference on the steep slopes of Jabal Al Akhdhar (Green Mountain) on Thursday's expected mountain finish.
Chris Froome (Team Sky) is also still an overall contender, lying just two seconds behind Nibali, as are Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team), Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). Like Contador, are six seconds down on the Astana team leader.
"All the overall contenders marked and followed each other carefully," Nibali said after stage 2.
"We were all watching each other on the climb; me, Froome, Contador and Evans. To be honest Contador seemed to be the strongest. Going over the top he was impressive. He accelerated hard over the top of the climb, showing he that little bit extra than everyone else."
Nibali clashed with Contador at the Tour de San Luis but the Spaniard was on better form, winning the mountain stage to on Mirador del Sol and finishing fourth overall. Nibali was 10th but the Argentinean race seems to have boosted his form.
The Sicilian won the stage to Green Mountain last year but missed to on overall victory to Peter Velits. Cleary more confident of his ability and with the Astana team at his full disposal, Nibali seems ready for a showdown with Contador on the 5.5km climb to the finish.
"The Green Mountain finish on Thursday is a tough finish, especially the steep final part. It'll show who has the best form out there," he predicted, throwing down the gauntlet.
Nibali instinctively likes to race and was not afraid to take on Sagan, Contador and the other leading riders in Oman.
"I got back on to Contador on the descent after he attacked over the top of the climb," he said of what happened, revealing the cut and thrust of the finale.
"The descent was fast and then Tony Gallopin attacked with about two kilometres to go at the roundabout. It was a clever move, and I saw that the others were looking around, so I went for it too and joined up with him. Then the other rider (Elmiger) joined us."
"Unfortunately, then Pete did an amazing ride, as he often does. He went for it with about a kilometre to go, got across to us and then went again with 500 metres to go, leaving us behind. We were in the red, there was nothing we could do to stop him winning."