ESFAHAN – Sepahan failed to make home advantage count in the first leg of their AFC Champions League quarter-final tie against Kawasaki Frontale as the Iranian Hazfi Cup holders were held to a goalless draw at Foolad Shahr Stadium on Wednesday.
Despite struggling recently on the domestic front, the Japanese side showed little fear of the home side and were only denied a precious away goal in the dying minutes when goalkeeper Abbas Mohammadi made an excellent save to deny Kazuhiro Marakami.
But despite failing to build an advantage in Esfahan, Frontale will be the happier of the two sides heading into the return match at Kawasaki Todoroki Stadium next Wednesday.
Sepahan were the form team with four wins in five Iran Pro League matches while Frontale had managed just a single win in their previous six J.League games, but it was the Japanese side that had the better of a scrappy first half.
Both teams took their time to settle on the Foolad Shahr pitch in a first half littered with fouls and physical play, but as the game developed, it was the visitors that began to prove more dangerous.
With skipper Kengo Nakamura pulling the strings in midfield, the Japanese side were a constant threat in attack as Brazilian forward Juninho and DPR Korea striker Jong Tae-se caused all manner of problems for the Sepahan defence.
The visitors should have gone in front in the 41st minute when Nakamura floated in a free kick from near the right touchline that was badly misjudged by Abbas Mohammadi. The Sepahan goalkeeper flapped at the ball, which flew over his outstretched hand to Juninho, who put his header wide of the open goal.
The Iranians had few openings but Mahmoud Karimi should have done better when he got on the end of a cross by skipper Moharram Navidkia but placed his header straight at goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
As the half came to a close, Nakamura slipped an excellent through ball to Jong, who outpaced two defenders but dragged his effort across the Sepahan goal.
Sepahan coach Luka Bonacic brought on midfielder Hossein Kazemi and Iraq international Emad Mohammed at half-time and although their introduction helped to liven things up in attack for the home side, they were mainly restricted to long-range efforts.
On 65 minutes, Karimi squandered perhaps the best opportunity of the match after a long ball caught out defender Hiroki Ito, allowing the Sepahan striker to gain possession behind the Kawasaki backline.
But with only the goalkeeper to beat, Karimi miscontrolled the ball and Kawashima was able to come off his line to block the effort and keep the game scoreless.
The hosts were presented with a good opportunity in the 79th minute when they were awarded a free kick on the edge of the Kawasaki box for Nakamura’s foul on Karimi. However, Navidkia’s effort deflected off the wall just wide of the Frontale goal.
Frontale remained dangerous on the counter attack and nearly stole a winner 10 minutes from time when Magnum cut the ball back from the right byline to Kazuhiro Marakami whose low shot at the far post was well stopped by Mohammadi.
Yoshinobu Minowa then glanced a Nakamura free kick wide in the dying minutes as the game finished in a stalemate leaving plenty to play for in Kawasaki next week.