Sepahan the team to beat again
When the new season gets underway on Tuesday, Iran Pro League title-holders Sepahan will face stiff competition for their crown, with all the league’s teams strengthening their ranks in the off-season. FIFA.com takes a look at the Iranian league and asks whether Sepahan, champions for two years running, could finally have their hold on the top spot loosened.
As 2010/11 league winners, the Esfahan-based club is odds-on favourite to retain the title. That said, their dominance of last year’s league was less than absolute, finishing just a point clear of runners-up Esteghlal. The departure of coach Amir Ghaleenoie after his contract expired this summer is less of blow than it might have been, as he has been replaced by talented Croatian Luka Bonacic, who previously led Sepahan to the finals of the AFC Champions League in 2007.
Nor have the players been immune from the winds of change, the administration dispensing with the services of a number of veteran names in Khosro Heydari, Javad Kazemian, Mehdi Rahmati, Hadi Aghily and Reza Enayati, while re-signing former Iraq international striker Emad Mohammed, who played last season for Shahin.
The biggest challenge to Sepahan will come from the capital Tehran, whose two sides Esteghlal and Perspolis start the season with wholesale changes in their squads and a huge fan base willing them on. Esteghlal last won the league in 2008/09, taking the title from Perspolis in the process.
Perspolis will be boosted by the arrival of Iran international and captain Ali Karimi from German club Schalke, while last season’s coach, Iran legend Ali Daei, is replaced by his former team-mate at Perspolis, Hamid Estili.
“We’ll do all we can to win titles,” the new coach said on signing his contract with the side. “But I’m not promising anything! We’ll do our best to win the league and the AFC Champions League. We’ve signed a number of excellent players and I’m more than happy with our current squad.”
The dark horses
Though yet to win the league, Zob-Ahan have proved a force to be reckoned with in recent years, finishing runners-up on three separate occasions and coming in third last season.
Saipa will be looking to replicate their achievements of 2006/07, when they were crowned champions for the first and only time, a record they share with Pas-Hamadan, who won the 2003/04 season in their former incarnation as Pas-Tehran, and Foolad, who took the title in 2004/05.
The most important transfers
In addition to Emad Mohammed, Sepahan have signed striker Hassan Ashjari and two goalkeepers, Rahman Ahmadi and Reza Mohammadi, to compensate for the departure of national team shot-stopper Mehdi Rahmati to Esteghlal, where he will play alongside fellow international Andranik Teymourian. Estaghal, meanwhile, have lost midfielder Iman Mobali to UAE side Sharjah, while Brazilian Andre Luiz has been released and his fellow countryman Felipe de Souza has moved to Zob-Ahan.
Perspolis welcome Burkina Faso’s Mamdou Tall from Uniao Leiria, who joins Karimi in midfield, while the arrivals of veteran defender Mohammad Nosrati and the attacking duo of Javad Kazemian and Mehrdad Oladi lend further depth to the squad.
Zob-Ahan signed Iraq international Hawar Mulla Mohammed and Portuguese midfielder Hugo Machado, while their midfield pairing of Reza Khalatbari and Mehdi Rajabzadeh have departed to Qatar outfits Al Gharafa and Fajr Sepasi respectively.
The big news this summer has been the number of coaches playing musical chairs in the Iran Pro League. Ali Daei has left Perspolis for Rah-Ahan, Taraktor-Sazi have taken on two-time league champion coach Amir Ghaleenoie, while Serb Miodrag Jesic takes the reins at Shahdari Tabriz.
Players to watch
Following an outstanding 2010/11 season that saw him score a league-topping 24 goals for Foolad, striker Reza Norouzi will be keen to repeat the feat this year.
Two strikers are in the running for the most league goals ever. Esteghlal’s Arash Borhani currently tops the list with 89, just two goals more than closest rival, Saba Battery’s Reza Enayati, and both men will be giving their all to finish the coming season on top.
Have your say
Can Sepahan make it three league titles on the trot, or will the two giants from Tehran spoil the party?