Sepahan to the four in Iran
Sepahan completed a successful title defence on Friday, with a goalless draw against Mes Sarcheshme enabling them to edge Tractor Sazi and Esteghlal by a point to clinch their third successive Iranian Pro League championship and fourth overall. This latest triumph has merely served to further cement the club’s status as the league's most successful side, as they now have twice the number of titles won by two-time winners Persepolis and Esteghlal.
Sepahan’s coronation only came, however, at the end of a breathtaking final matchday in which the reigning champions needed only to avoid defeat to be guaranteed of glory. Tractor Sazi and Esteghlal, their two nearest rivals, both won to leave the outcome on a knife-edge, but it was Sepahan who had the last laugh after eking out the point required against the already-relegated Mes Sarcheshme.
Having gone into the campaign on the back of successive titles under coach Amir Ghalenoei, Sepahan were unsurprisingly considered pre-season favourites by Iranian fans and media alike. However, they were dealt a blow in the close season by the unexpected departure of their manager, who left to take charge of Tractor Sazi and converted his new team into genuine championship contenders.
Luka Bonacic was the man left to fill the void left by Ghalenoei, but the Croatian was sacked after Sepahan began the season in disappointing fashion, with draws against Esteghlal and Saba Battery. Karim Ghanbari became interim coach and steadied the ship before, in October, former Croatia and Montenegro boss Zlatko Kranjcar was given the task of retaining the title.
Under the experienced Croatian, Sepahan gradually clawed themselves back into the contention with a 2-0 win at Mes Sarcheshmeh that saw them climb to second midway through the season. Kranjcar went on to make the best of January's transfer window, enhancing his side with the acquisition of Brazilian striker Bruno Correa, while also prising Xhevahir Sukaj from Turkish siode Genclerbirligi.
The reinforced team proved unstoppable in the remainder of campaign, racking up seven successive wins to belatedly justify their status as title favourites. This form couldn’t continue forever, but despite a 1-0 defeat at Tractor Sazi, Sepahan carved our four wins and three draws in the final stages to retain their championship by the slightest of margins.
The season also witness a host of talented Iranian youngsters continue their emergence on the domestic scene. Topping this list was the on-song Karim Ansarifard, who finished top scorer with 21 goals, a feat all the more impressive for the fact that his Saipa side finished in eighth position.
Already hailed as the successor to scoring legend Ali Daei courtesy of his brilliant showings with both club and country, the 22-year-old lived up to all expectations during a sensational season. His impressive goal-tally included four braces and one hat-trick in a memorable 5-0 win over Fajr Sepasi.
Having made his name by steering Iran to the second round in the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Nigeria, 20-year-old Payam Sadeghian also gradually established his place with Zob Ahan, chipping in with several goals and assists. Nor did his eye-catching displays go unnoticed by Iran boss Carlos Queiroz, who awarded the youngster his first international cap recently.
Last but not least, 21-year-old goalkeeper Hamed Lak emerged as one of the country's most sought-after young players after his exploits helped Saba Battery finish in the top four. Among the clubs reportedly chasing Lak’s signature as Turkish giants Besiktas, and he could become the second Iranian keeper to move to Europe this year, following Alireza Haghighi’s switch to Russia's Rubin Kazan in January.