Persian Gulf Pro League preview: Sepahan, Esteghlal to lock horns as Persepolis looks to keep up momentum

Sports Desk

 

Persepolis manager Yahya Golmohammadi hopes his men will walk away with a third successive win when the Tehran Reds are back in Persian Gulf Pro League action on Friday.

Second-placed Golgohar Sirjan played to a goalless draw away to Aluminium Arak on Monday, meaning Persepolis holds a four-point lead over its nearest rival on top of the Iranian top-flight table, heading into the home encounter against Zob Ahan at the Azadi Stadium.

On Thursday, third-placed Sepahan and Esteghlal – separated by goal difference – will square off in an all-Portuguese battle in Isfahan, with Blues boss Ricardo Sa Pinto eager to see his troops build on the extra-time comeback victory over Tractor in the Hazfi Cup last Thursday.

The contest against Jose Morais could still be a season-defining one for Sa Pinto and his men, who have been under pressure in recent weeks after a single win in four games since the World Cup break has left the defending champion off the pace in the table.

Sepahan, meanwhile, will step onto the pitch on the back of comfortable victories over Mes Kerman and Saipa in the league and cup, knowing a repeat of the reverse fixture’s outcome – a 2-0 triumph on the opening day of the season – could give the Isfahan-based giant the edge over the other members of the chasing pack for the rest of the way.

 

Tricky test for Reds

 

Zob Ahan is 10th in the 16-team table though Mehdi Tartar’s resilient side has proved to be a tough team to beat as it has only suffered three defeats in 15 games – a joint second-best tally outside the top four spots.

Persepolis was held to a goalless stalemate when the two sides met last August but the Reds, chasing a sixth title in seven years, will be looking to keep the momentum rolling after back-to-back victories over Golgohar and Nassaji Mazandaran saw the club overcome the setback of Jurgen Locadia’s departure.

Having joined the club in the summer, the Dutch striker was quick to pay off for the Reds as he bagged six goals in nine outings before he walked out on his two-year contract on the eve of the Tehran derby in late December for what was believed to be “personal reasons.”

With Malian Cheick Diabaté dealing with injuries for the best part of the campaign, Golmohammadi has opted not to trust misfiring domestic duo Mehdi Abdi and Hamed Pakdel – who are yet to get off the mark this season – and did a decent job in fielding a starting XI without an established striker.

Academy product Mohammad Omri has been Persepolis’ unlikely hero in recent games as the 22-year-old, who has joined up with fellow midfielders Mehdi Torabi and Vahid Amiri in the frontline, netted the opener in the 2-0 away win against Golgohar before netting twice in the 5-1 hammering of Nassaji at home.

Golmohammadi will have to do without his talisman Torabi, who will serve a one-match ban after the Iranian international received his marching orders against Nassaji.

Elsewhere, Nassaji will host Mes Rafsanjan in Thursday’s early kickoff.

Mes is fifth in the table and has left the pitch empty-handed just once in 15 matches – a figure only matched by Persepolis – but had to share the spoils with the opponents on 10 occasions.

Mohammad Rabiei’s men have enjoyed the best defensive record in the league this season – conceding four – though only Aluminium (8) and Paykan (7) have scored fewer goals than their nine-goal tally.

Malavan FC will meet Paykan in Bandar-e Anzali on Thursday in a match that could see the winner steer clear off the relegation zone, while on Friday, Mes Kerman – sitting a point above the bottom two – will welcome rock-bottom side Naft Masjed Soleyman.

Also on Friday, San’at Naft Abadan – second from bottom – will go head-to-head with Javad Nekounam’s Foolad Khuzestan in the southern Iranian derby.

Golgohar will be facing a stern test when visiting Tabriz on Saturday to take on a resurgent Tractor side under Spanish manager Paco Jemez, who led his team to a massive 2-0 win against Esteghlal last time out in the league.

Havadar will face Aluminium in Tehran.