All eyes will be on Tehran’s Azadi Stadium on Friday, when Esteghlal and Sepahan square off on the opening day of the new Persian Gulf Pro League season.
The game will be an all-Portuguese clash between two new managers in the Iranian top flight in Ricardo Sa Pinto and Jose Morais.
Sa Pinto, who took over from Farhad Majidi in June, will be looking to lead Esteghlal to a second successive title – following a remarkable unbeaten season – while Morais will chase a first league trophy in eight years for the Isfahan-based outfit, after two ill-fated quests under Moharram Navidkia finished in second and third places.
The two Iranian giants plus Persepolis – sharing the top three of the table for the past two years – will again be the favorites to lift the trophy, come the end of the season, and a victory on Friday will give either of the two sides an early momentum in the new campaign.
Persepolis, which saw its run of five consecutive titles come to an end last term, will begin pursuit for a record-extending eighth championship with a visit to Isfahan against Zob Ahan on Saturday.
The Tehran-based club kicked on a busy transfer window right after the previous season ended – sealing deals for Iranian international keeper Alireza Beiranvand, Morteza Pouraliganji, Soroush Rafiei, Danial Esmaeilifar, Saeed Sadeqi, and Georgian center-back Giorgi Gvelesiani – but has been crying out for a striker to provide competition for Mehdi Abdi and Hamed Pakdel.
While Sepahan and Tehran archrivals are heavily tipped to form a three-horse race on top of the table, Foolad Khuzestan, Golgohar Sirjan, Mes Rafsanjan, and Tractor will still fancy their chances of entering the title mix.
Foolad has been in consistent form under Javad Nekounam for the past three years, and the addition of Persepolis pair Ehsan Pahlevan and Saeed Aqaei as well as former Esteghlal skipper Voria Ghafouri and veteran midfielder Ashkan Dejagah could see the southern Iranian side improve on last year’s fifth-spot finish.
Foolad will play San’at Naft Abadan at home on Saturday, with Golgohar and Tractor squaring off in Sirjan.
Golgohar, fourth in the league last season, has had a quiet summer as Amir Qalenoei’s side has only had a single marquee signing in Iranian under-23 midfielder Mohammad Khodabandelou, while 18-year-old striker Amir Shahim has also joined the club after a stellar season with Mashinsazi in the Iranian second division.
Tractor finished a dreadful season struggling in the bottom half of the table – eventually finishing in the 13th spot – but will be hoping new Russian-Turkmen head coach Kurban Berdyev will turn the fortunes around at the northwestern Iranian club.
Mes, which has been impressive since winning promotion to the Pro League in 2020, finished sixth in the league, and signed Persepolis keeper Hamed Lak, and Brazilian Luciano Pereira from Foolad among others.
Mohammad Rabiei’s men will kick off their campaign away to Hazfi Cup champion Nassaji Mazandaran.
Elsewhere, Paykan will host newly-promoted Malavan Bandar Anzali in Tehran on Friday, while Mes Kerman will play in a first Pro League game in eight years at Naft Masjed Soleyman.
Aluminium Arak and Havadar will lock horns in Arak.
Fixtures will come thick and fast as the Iranian clubs are to play five round of matches before the national team heads into a training camp, ahead of a couple of friendly fixtures in the upcoming international break in September.