Esteghlal seeking consolation in Hazfi Cup quest

Persian Gulf Pro League giant Esteghlal will be hosting defending champion Nassaji Mazandaran in the Iranian Hazfi Cup semifinal today at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, with the home side looking for solace in a season overwhelmed by controversy and chaos on and off the pitch.
The game will be a third meeting between the two sides this season, after the Tehran-based Blues came out 3-1 winners at home in the league last September and then played to a 1-1 draw against the northern Iranian side in February.
Esteghlal beat second-tier club Pars Jonoubi Jam 1-0 – courtesy of a Saeed Mehri’s extra time winner – for a last-four place, while Nassaji defeated Paykan 3-0 at the Vatani Stadium in April’s quarterfinals.
The match comes a week after Esteghlal settled for a third-spot finish in the Iranian top-flight despite a 7-1 thrashing of Tractor on the final day of the season, while having to watch archrival Persepolis lift a sixth league trophy in seven years.
However, Esteghlal manager Ricardo Sa Pinto refused to congratulate the Reds on their triumph in the post-match press conference as the Portuguese believed his men “were most deserving” to win a second successive title.
“I have respect for Persepolis just as I have for Sepahan and the other teams in the league, but I think I can have my own opinion. I can’t congratulate a team that didn’t really deserve the title. We would have been the champions if there were more justice in the games,” Sa Pinto said, adding his team would have collected “10 to 12 more points”, had it not been for “bad luck and major refereeing mistakes in some of our matches.”
Still, many believe Esteghlal players and Sa Pinto deserve credit for staying in the title race until the penultimate round of league fixtures despite all the issues within the club hierarchy, which saw the chairman seat change hands twice.
The four-time Iranian league champion is also set to be withdrawn from the AFC Champions League for a second year running, after the club failed to adhere to the Asian football governing body’s licensing regulations.
The winner of today’s encounter will play either Persepolis or Havadar, which will square off in the other semifinal on Wednesday, meaning a third Tehran derby of the season is on the cards.
Esteghlal players have insisted in recent days that they will be eager to meet the newly-crowned league champion in the final showpiece as they would leap at the chance for revenge against their city rivals.
Enjoying a remarkable run of nine wins in 10 unbeaten games, Esteghlal was in flying heading into the derby in April – a game billed as a decider in the title run-in.
An Issa Al-e Kassir’s second-half strike summed up a disappointing afternoon for Esteghlal, as Persepolis won 1-0 to leapfrog Esteghlal and Sepahan on top of the table, while the Blues were held to a 1-1 draw against San’at Naft Abadan in the following game to have their title defense all but finished.
The majority of Esteghlal supporters are convinced that Sa Pinto can build on his men’s dominant displays in the best part of the season – which saw them bag a league-best 52 goals – and a possible silverware in the Hazfi Cup ahead of next season.
To that end, Esteghlal will have to make sure no harm will be inflicted by today’s opponent.


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