Having twice narrowly lost the Iran Pro League title to Sepahan previously, the past season saw Esteghlal indomitable as they dethroned the defending champions to recapture the domestic laurels. A 1-0 victory at Foolad in the penultimate match, during which Iran captain Javad Nekounam scored the only goal, sealed The Blues’ eighth title.
The success ensured Esteghlal’s qualification for the next year’s AFC Champions League, alongside second-placed Teraktor-Sazi and Sepahan, while fourth-placed Foolad earned their playoff for the continental finals.
At the opposite side of the table, erratic Zob-Ahan avoided relegation with two successive wins to end the season. Aluminum Hormozgan, Sanat Naft, Peykan and Gahar Zagros were, however, demoted.
The return of winning coach
The last time Esteghlal emerged victorious was in 2008/2009 season, when the Tehran giants edged Zob-Ahan on goal difference to the title under none other than former Iran and clubcaptain Amir Ghalenoei. But with the manager leaving to take up the Sepahan’s reigns, they had to settle for a third-place finish the following season during which the Isfahan side prevailed.
Ghalenoei continued his title-winning streak with Sepahan the next season, edging Esteghlal by a single point to defend their title. And he came close to repeating the feat with an unfancied Teraktor-Sazi, who finished the 2011/2012 season level with Esteghlal on points as runners-up.
Having lifted the Iranian trophy with Esteghlal as a player and coach respectively, unsurprisingly, the 49-year-old returned to the reigns of The Blues last May, tasked with restoring the side’s local hegemony. To reinforce his side, Ghalenoei left no stones unturned to secure a series of high-profile signings, among which the most notable were Nekounam from Osasuna, Amin Manouchehri from Saipa and Fabio Januario from Sepahan.
Entering the season brimming with confidence, though, Esteghlal opened in lacklustre fashion, with a defeat and three consecutive draws from the opening six games sinking them to tenth place. But they rallied to manage four wins in the following five outings to climb into the top four, and despite a 2-0 loss at Teraktor-Sazi they saw off Aluminum Hormozgan and Gahar Zagros to move to the top of the table for the first time.
The season’s second half became a three-way battle, with both Sepahan and Teraktor-Sazi mounting serious challenges against Esteghlal. But Ghalenoei’s campaign-hardened outfits kept their cool to hang onto their lead until clinching the championship with a game to spare.
With Nekounam bossing the midfield, captain Farhad Mjidi formed a formidable attacking line-up alongside Arash Borhani and Farzad Hatami, the team’s top-two goal-scorers with ten and nine goals each. Even more impressive was their solid back-line spearheaded by Iran number one Mehdi Rahmati, who conceded merely 18 goals while managing 21 clean sheets in 34 outings.
The team, meanwhile, showed the similar form on the continental scene. They finished group winners ahead of the likes of Al Hilal and Al Ain to storm into the Round of 16 of this year’s AFC Champions League, a feat which maintains Ghalenoei’s hopes of a home and Asian double. “Our aim is to continue winning games in the Asian competition,” he said, “we hope to reach as far as we can in order to compete for the title.”
Consolation for Sepahan
Sepahan, for their part, had a season largely to forget, during which they lost their league title and failed to progress beyond the group phase in the Champions League.
But by no means did they finish empty-handed, with a fourth Hazfi Cup triumph providing Zlatko Kranjcar’s charges with a consolation. In the process, they overcame Esteghlal on penalties in the semi-finals to set up the final meeting with Persepolis, where they again won after penalty shootout to claim the silverware.
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