The latest round of the Persian Gulf Pro League fixtures saw the top two, Esteghlal and Persepolis, walk away with maximum points, while the chasing packs, Sepahan and Mes Rafsanjan, settled for draws against Havadar and Foolad Khuzestan.
In Tabriz, Esteghlal prodigy Amirhossein Hosseinzadeh bagged the winner for the Tehran-based Blues with 20 minutes left on the clock, chipping the ball over keeper Mohammadreza Akhbari, as Farhad Majidi’s men beat their host Tractor 1-0.
The result – a remarkable 13th clean sheet of the season – saw Esteghlal extend its unbeaten start to the campaign to 18 games, retaining the top spot of the table with 44 points – three clear of archrival Persepolis, which were in action later in the day.
Yahya Golmohammadi’s men walked into the game against Aluminium Arak – the only team to have inflicted a defeat over the Reds this season – at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium knowing that, with Gol Gohar Sirjan and Mes Rafsanjan coming their way in the next nine days, any result other than a victory would have further hindered their quest for a record-extending sixth successive title.
Persepolis striker Hamed Pakdel (red) scores during a 2-0 victory over Aluminium Arak at the Azadi Stadium, Tehran, Iran, on February 18, 2022.
Hamed Pakdel had to come off the bench to break the deadlock for Persepolis in the 76th minute – his second goal as a substitute in five days – keeping his cool in a one-on-one situation when Mehdi Abdi’s flick touch fell into his path.
Reza Asadi, also a late introduction, sealed a 2-0 win for the host right before the final whistle as he was the first to the ball on a clearance by Aluminium keeper Hossein Pourhamidi to score from the edge of the box.
Golmohammadi, who was full of praise for his players for showing “the character of the champions”, still acknowledged that “it was a really tough match as we gave away the ball too easily under their pressure on numerous occasions. Thank God we managed to pull off three massive points.”
The match was also a first outing in a Reds’ shirt in nearly five years for high-profile fullback Ramin Rezaeian, who joined the club on the winter transfer window’s deadline day.
“Ramin delivered a relatively decent performance, but it will take some time before he fully fits in the team. He will surely make bigger contribution in the near future,” Persepolis manager said of his winter addition.
Third-placed Sepahan blew the chance to mount the pressure on the leading duo in Friday’s early kickoff, sharing the points with Havadar in a goalless encounter in Tehran.
It was a similar scenario as in many games this season for Moharram Navidkia’s side, which again enjoyed the majority of the ball throughout the match but failed to capitalize on its dominance.
The draw meant that the Isfahan-based giant now trails the top by 11 points and, with 12 games to spare, a serious title challenge looks unlikely for Navidkia’s men.
Mes, meanwhile, missed out on closing the gap on Sepahan to a single point after finishing 1-1 at home against Javad Nekounam’s Foolad.
Shahin Tavakkoli headed home the opener for the host late in the first half, only to see his strike canceled out by Mohammadreza Khal’atbari in the 69th minute.
Mes still felt lucky to leave the pitch with the minimum point after goalkeeper Davoud Noushi-Soufiani saved Luciano Pereira’s effort from the spot in the sixth minute of the stoppage time.
Elsewhere, Mojtaba Haqdoust and Mohammad-Mehdi Mohebbi scored late in the game to lead fifth-placed Paykan to an away 2-0 win against Zob Ahan, which went down to 10 men after Hossein Shanani received his marching orders for two bookable offences inside three minutes midway through the second half.
In Mashhad, where Nassaji Mazandaran temporarily plays its home fixtures, in-form midfielder Saeid Sadeqi assisted a first-half opener for Shayan Mosleh and then doubled the lead for Gol Gohar with a spot kick in the 63rd minute, before Karim Eslami pulled one back for Nassaji with 20 minutes from normal time, as Amir Qalenoei’s side beat Nassaji 2-1 to go equal on points with Paykan.
Fajr Sepasi and San’at Naft Abadan shared the spoils in a goalless stalemate in Shiraz, while rock-bottom club Padideh celebrated a first victory of the season, claiming an away 1-0 win over Naft Masjed Soleyman, also struggling in the relegation zone, courtesy of a Mohammadreza Fallahian’s 93rd-minute strike.