The results of the latest round of the games in the Persian Gulf Pro League on Friday suggest that Iranian football fans could now expect a two-horse title race from now till the end of the season.
League leader Esteghlal beat Tractor 1-0 in Tabriz while closest rival Persepolis claimed a 2-0 victory over Aluminium Arak at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium hours later to keep the gap on top at three points.
The results came after third-placed Sepahan had been held to a goalless away draw against Havadar in the early kickoff, meaning that the Isfahan-based club now trails the top by 11 points and, with 12 games to spare, a serious title charge is more fanciful than ever for Moharram Navidkia’s side.
And now with about 30 days to go before the turn of the Iranian New Year on March 21, a hectic schedule could play a massive part in the head-to-head battle between the Tehran-based archrivals for the domestic trophy.
Esteghlal and Persepolis will both have to play five games inside 22 days, with the last for each being an eagerly-awaited Tehran Derby on March 17.
Seeking a first league title since 2013, Esteghlal will be facing a relatively easier round of fixtures – at least on paper – as Farhad Majidi’s Blues – yet to concede a defeat this season – will leave Tehran only once during that period, with three of the games coming against the teams from the top half the table.
Persepolis, meanwhile, will have to visit Sirjan, Abadan, and Masjed Soleyman, with grueling tests against three of the top six awaiting Yahya Golmohammadi’s Reds in their quest for a record-extending sixth successive title.
The decisive three weeks will begin on Wednesday, when Esteghlal meets Fajr Sepasi at the Azadi Stadium while Persepolis plays away to Gol Gohar Sirjan.
Esteghlal faithful will fancy a 14th victory of the campaign against Fajr – currently third from bottom in the table – but Majidi will surely tell his players to avoid the incidents of the reverse fixture earlier in the season when Esteghlal was stunned by a stoppage-time equalizer.
Persepolis will be looking to mount the pressure on Esteghlal by collecting all three points when visiting sixth-placed Goal Gohar earlier in the day.
Amir Qalenoei’s men, inspired by in-form midfielder Saeed Sadeqi in recent weeks, will have their own reasons to fight for a win as they are engaged in a tight race with Sepahan, Paykan, and Mes Rafsanjan for a top-three finish and a place in next year’s AFC Champions League.
Persepolis had to come back from behind to secure a point against Gol Gohar in a 1-1 draw in the corresponding fixture on matchday four.
February 28 matches will see Esteghlal take on Nassaji Mazandaran, which held the Blues to a goalless draw last November, in Mashhad – currently serving as the host to the northern Iranian side’s home games – while another tough test will be on the cards for the Reds at home – against fourth-placed Mes, which has been widely admired for delivering free-flowing football throughout the season.
Golmohammadi’s side was lucky to claim a single point last time out against Mohammad Rabiei’s men, as a controversial spot kick by Mehdi Torabi canceled out an Aqil Ka’bi’s screamer in a one-all draw.
Before the top two lock horns in the closing stages of the year, Esteghlal will host former managers Alireza Mansourian and Qalenoei, when respectively playing San’at Naft Abadan and Gol Gohar at the Azadi Stadium.
The game against Gol Gohar will be the one to watch, following the incidents of the goalless encounter between the two earlier in the season, which saw the Disciplinary Committee of the Iranian Football Federation hand Esteghlal a 3-0 victory due to an unauthorized player – Gabonese Eric Bocoum – being fielded by Gol Gohar.
Persepolis, meanwhile, will have two trips to southern Iran to play San’at Naft and relegation-candidate Naft Masjed Soleyman.