The curtain came down on the 2009/2010 Iranian Pro League season this week when Sepahan rounded off a dominant title-winning campaign with a 1-1 draw at Persepolis on Tuesday.
The title race was actually decided a fortnight ago, when a 2-2 draw against Abomoslem proved sufficient for Amir Ghaleenoie's charges to establish an unassailable advantage over Zob Ahan with two games to spare. By doing so, they became the first team from outside Tehran to win more than one league title, with the only other multiple winners, Persepolis and Esteghlal, hailing from the capital.
With the Isfahan outfit – whose last championship came in 2003 - sealing the title ahead of schedule, attention switched to which three clubs would secure a place in the top four and qualify for next year’s AFC Champions League. It came as little surprise that in-form Zob Ahan, the only Iranian side to reach the last eight in the 2010 AFC Champions League, held onto second spot, dismantling Malavan 3-0 in the closing match to clinch silver.
Defending champions Esteghlal came third and, despite being held 1-1 by Sepahan, Persepolis edged out Steel Azin by a solitary point to grab fourth. At the opposite side of the table, Moghavemat, Abomoslem and Esteghlal Ahvaz were all relegated after finishing in the bottom three.
Since winning their maiden domestic title seven years ago, Sepahan have established themselves as a rising force both domestically and on the continental stage. They went on to win the Hazfi Cup three times, while finishing as runners-up in the 2007 AFC Champions League underlined their emergence as an Asian power.
Under former Iran coach Ghaleenoie, they entered this season confident of a second domestic title but their road to success was more bumpy than the final standings might suggest. Sepahan certainly struggled initially, losing their opening match to Esteghlal and managing only four wins in their first ten outings. Indeed, it was only suffering their third loss of the season to Steel Azin in the 13th round of fixtures that they began to find consistency, with an impressive seven-match winning streak establishing them at the top of the table.
With five matches remaining, Sepaphan again fell to Azin 2-1, causing brief worries among their supporters. However, they quickly bounced back with a crucial 2-0 home win over Rah Ahan to leave themselves on verge of recapturing the championship. In the match that eventually led to their coronation, hosts Abomoslem went head courtesy of Mohammad Rajabzadeh inside six minutes but Emad Mohammed and Ehsan Hajsafi scored to make it 2-1 for the visitors, and while Vahid Asgari restored parity late in the match, a point was enough to secure the title.
For coach Ghaleenoie, it represented just reward for a season in which collective efforts have paid off. “We won the marathon of 36 weeks and this is the kind of race that is a good evaluation of the team and coach,” said the 45-year-old. “We changed our squad 40 per cent compared to last year but still managed to win the championship.”
He attributed Sepahan’s success largely to the outstanding form of the imported striking duo of Iraqi Emad Mohammed and Senegalese Ibrahima Toure, who dominated the league’s scoring chart with 19 and 18 goals respectively. “We have to thank our strikers who finished the league’s top scorers, and we did similarly well in defence,” he said, adding ominously: “You will see the real Sepahan next season.”