The new season of the Persian Gulf Pro League gets underway on Tuesday as 16 Iranian clubs will be back in domestic league action after nearly three months.
Sepahan will begin its campaign at home against Mes Rafsanjan – the surprise package of the previous season.
After an impressive season, which saw Moharram Navidkia’s side go neck and neck with Persepolis for the title until the final day, the Isfahan-based giant will be looking to lift a first league trophy in seven years.
Sepahan was probably the most successful team in the summer transfer market, being already tipped by many pundits to bring an end to the five-year dominance of Persepolis in the league.
Navidkia was delighted to see ex-Persepolis striker Shahriar Moghanloo join Sepahan, while Farshad Ahmadzadeh also signed for the central Iranian outfit after two successful seasons at Foolad Khuzestan.
Former Esteghlal midfielder Masoud Rigi will also add depth in the middle of the pitch for Sepahan, with Austrian keeper Christopher Knett replacing Payam Niazmand who joined Portuguese club Portimonense in the summer.
Also a favorite for the title race will be Farhad Majidi’s Esteghlal, which will host newly-promoted Havadar at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium on Wednesday.
This will be the first occasion that Majidi begins the season on the Tehran-based Blues’ bench, having taken charge of the club midway through previous three campaigns.
Esteghlal saw its best player in recent years, Mehdi Qayedi, leave to join the UAE league in the summer, with Farshid Esmaeili, Cheick Diabaté, Mohammad Naderi, and Hrvoje Milić also joining Rigi on their way out of the club.
Majidi’s side, however, has been boosted by the acquisition of ex-Foolad duo Zobeir Niknafs and Aref Aqassi, as well as Padideh’s talisman Amin Qasseminejad.
Rouzbeh Cheshmi is also back in Esteghlal outfit after a season-long spell at Qatar’s Umm Salal, while French fullback Arthur Yamga signed for Esteghlal last week.
Also on Wednesday, Tractor and Golgohar Sirjan – which finished fourth and fifth respectively last time out – will square off in Sirjan, with both sides looking to launch an early title charge.
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Naft Masjed Soleyman – under new manager Faraz Kamalvand – plays away to Paykan, which also sees a new face as the head coach in Mojtaba Hosseini.
Padideh will host Aluminium Arak in Mashhad, with Fajr Sepasi, playing a first top-flight game in seven seasons when visiting Nassaji Mazandaran.
San’at Naft Abadan and Zob Ahan will play the other fixture of Wednesday in Abadan.
The biggest game of the first round of matches, however, will come on Friday, as defending champion Persepolis will play one of its toughest fixtures of the season away to the Hazfi Cup holder Foolad Khuzestan in Ahvaz’s Foolad Arena.
Yahya Golmohammadi’s Reds, seeking a record-extending sixth title, will hope to bounce back from Saturday’s AFC Champions League setback, when they were outclassed by Saudi side Al Hilal in a 3-0 last-eight defeat in Riyadh.
International center-back Hossein Kan’anizadegan and midfielder Ahmad Nourollahi – considered by many as the league’s best player last season – have joined Moghanloo in leaving the club.
Golmohammadi, however, will hope new signings Hamed Pakdel, Reza Assadi, and Alireza Ebrahimi will fill the void created by the departure of his three key players.
Foolad, meanwhile, will embark on a new chapter after inspirational manager Javad Nekounam ended a two-season period in Ahvaz.
Abdollah Veisi was appointed as the new manager in the summer and will face a tough task in driving Foolad forward after Ahamdzadeh, Niknafs, Aggasi, and goalkeeper Mohsen Forouzan left the club.