All eyes on the Azadi
The Iranian Pro League season reaches Round 23 of 34 on Friday, with leaders Esteghlal hosting mid-table arch-rivals Persepolis. It is the 76th edition of a Tehran derby all eyes will be on.
Even among all the vintage fixtures across Asia, Esteghlal-Persepolis stands out. Both are among the most successful Iranian clubs and share the 90,000-capacity Azadi Stadium, and both boast large followings from the capital and beyond.
Since its maiden running in 1968, Esteghlal-Persepolis quickly rose to become its country’s national derby and a who’s who of Iranian greats have experienced its intensity. To name but a few, Ali Parvin turned out for Persepolis against their bitter enemies a record 20 times, while the likes of AFC Asian Cup 1972 top scorer Hossein Kalani, world football’s all-time leading international marksman Ali Daei, and the legendary Karim Bagheri have all graced the fixture with their presence.
"The Reds versus the Blues is arguably one of the most colorful, historic and exciting derbies in Asia", former Persepolis and Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi told FIFA.com prior to the upcoming match. "This derby has a massive social, cultural and sporting meaning to fans not only across Iran but also around the world.”
Ghotbi, who guided Persepolis to their last league title in 2007/08 and is now at the Shimizu S-Pulse controls added: "I expect all the players from the two sides to play with passion, winning spirit and intelligence. Derbies are all about keeping organisation, composure and concentration."
Form and key players
Statistically, Esteghlal have won 24 Tehran derbies to Persepolis’s 18, with the remaining 33 ending all square. And form-wise, too, the boys in blue have reason for optimism, having gone five games unbeaten – conceding just once in the process – to go top of the Pro League, one point clear of Teraktor-Sazi, four above Foolad and five in front of defending champions Sepahan, who have a game in hand. During this prosperous run, striker Arash Borhani became Esteghlal’s 90-goal all-time leading scorer
Persepolis, meanwhile, have won two and drawn two of their last four matches to climb to joint-ninth in the 18-team division. Following a forgettable 2011/12 in which they finished just six places off the bottom, the men in red are eager to continue their recent upward scent by emerging victorious in the derby.
Borhani and Farzad Hatemi are expected to spearhead the Esteghlal attack, while Iran goalkeeper Mehdi Rahmati has conceded just 12 goals in 22 outings this season.
Persepolis will charge new signing Karim Ansarifard, who finished 2011/12 as the league's leading marksman with 21 goals for Saipa, with firing them to victory, and though midfield maestro Ali Karimi is likely to miss the showdown due to a foot injury, captain Mehdi Mahdavikia is fit to provide his influence and defence-splitting passes.
When asked to predict the outcome , Ghotbi opted to shake his head: “Both teams have players with the quality and experience to make the difference, so regardless of the result it will be an epic game as usual.”