A game of two different halves saw Tractor beat Esteghlal 3-2 in the Hazfi Cup final at Imam Reza Stadium in Mashhad, northern Iran, on Thursday.
A commanding first-half performance gave the Tabriz-based club a three goal lead before the capital Blues pulled two back after the interval to make it a nervy end for eventual champion.
Thursday’s triumph means that Tractor is now secured a place in next season’s AFC Champions League group stage, while Esteghlal – the Persian Gulf Pro League runner-up – will have to dig its way through playoffs for a berth in the group phase.
Mohammadreza Khanzadeh opened the account for Tractor in the 17th minute with a lob – although it remains unclear if his effort was intended for the goal or a teammate.
Farhad Majidi’s men found themselves trailing by two goals 17 minutes later.
Ehsan Hajsafi picked international teammate Ashkan Dejagah behind the Blues’ backline before former Wolfsburg and Fulham player kept his cool in a one-on-one situation with Esteghlal keeper Seyyed Hossein Hosseini for Tractor’s second goal.
Esteghlal players had an appeal for a hand ball by a tractor player in the build-up to the goal and replay footages suggested they rightly did so.
Akbar Imani seemed to have put the game to bed in the 41st minute when his close-angle header on a Dejagah’s free-kick found the back of the net.
The introduction of prolific striker Amir-Arsalan Motahari turned things around in the second half and Esteghlal seemed to be on course for a famous comeback when Blues’ prodigy Mehdi Qaedi headed home Voria Ghafouri’s cross five minutes after the break.
Esteghlal could have cut the deficit to one on a couple of occasions as Motahari’s header hit the post in the 62nd minute before Qaedi saw his effort cleared of the line by Tractor defender Meysam Taymouri a minute later.
Esteghlal, however, was given a lifeline with ten minutes left on the clock when skipper Ghafouri again made a perfect cross, this time for Motahari to score with a close-range header.
Tractor eventually held on late – in a game that saw the referee announce nine minutes of stoppage time – to win the final, with head coach Saket Elhami – who replaced Turkish Mustafa Denizli last December – finding his way into Tractor faithful’s folklore after leading the club to only its second-ever major trophy – after 2014 Hazfi Cup title.
Esteghlal, meanwhile, confirmed after Thursday’s defeat that the Tehran-based club – which will have to resume its AFC Champions League campaign in mid-October – is negotiating with Andrea Stramaccioni to reappoint the Italian as the Esteghlal’s head coach.
Majidi had announced his resignation a day after the cup semifinal win over archrival Persepolis in the shootouts on Aug. 26, slamming the club CEO Ahmad Sa’adatmand’s trip to Italy in an effort to lure back Majidi’s Italian predecessor – whom the Iranian replaced in December – on the eve of the Tehran derby.
Majidi, however, reversed his decision a day later but had insisted that Thursday’s final was his last game in charge of the Tehran giant.