In the second part of the Apertura 2012 preview for the brand new Liga MX, the mid-table teams scrambling to make the playoffs are put under the microscope.
Since winning the Bicentenario 2010 just over two years ago, Toluca hasn´t made a single playoff.
The offseason vibe was good, with Enrique Meza back in charge of the team he led to three titles and Paraguayan Edgar Benitez, Brazilian Lucas Silva and a handful of other signings reinvigorating the club.
Then came the bombshell that threatens to derail Toluca´s season: Chilean striker Ivan Alonso retired due to health concerns.
Alonso wasn´t only the main striker at Toluca, but the league´s leading goalscorer in the two previous season in Mexico´s first division, despite being in a mid-table team.
The blow should be partly offset by Meza´s shrewd tactics on the bench and a solid defensive spine, but it is difficult to see Toluca reaching the playoffs without Alonso.
Player to watch: Brazilian-Mexican Sinha isn´t too far from completing 500 appearances for Toluca and his influence this season will be as important as ever, despite his 36 years. The string-puller needs to form the kind of partnership he enjoyed with Alonso with newcomer Benitez.
Stadium: Nemesio Diez (25,000)
Nickname: Diablos Rojos (Red Devils)
Last season: 10th
This season: 12th
It´ll be an Colombian-dominated strikeforce at Jaguares again this season, but it is unlikely to fire with the same force as it did before Jackson Martinez left for Porto in an 11 million dollar deal in the summer.
John Andres Cordoba has been brought in to fill the gap and while the “Colombian Drogba” nickname has Jagaures fans excited, the 1.88m Cordoba is only 19 years old and it is unfair to expect him to make up for the loss of Martinez straight away.
Luis Gabriel Rey and Franco Arizala, along with Cordoba, will still make a fearsome forward line and make Jaguares, who finished eighth last season, an opponent no team will enjoy playing against. Guatemalan forward Jose Carlos Castillo will also be competing up front. His nickname is “Harry Potter,” leaving the intriguing possibility of “Drogba” and “Harry Potter” playing up front together.
In defense, another Colombian, Leyton Jimenez has been brought in.
Maintaining the much-respected Jose Guadalupe Cruz at the helm hands Jaguares the advantage of continuity that should see them in the playoff mix, but the loss of Martinez would be an unassailable blow to any Mexican team.
Player to watch: 32-year-old striker Luis Gabriel Rey scored 16 goals over the last two seasons and, with the loss of Martinez, the pressure is on him to keep up the exceptional scoring rate.
Stadium: Victor Manuel Reyna (25,000)
Last season: 8th
This season´s prediction: 11th
The loss of Tomas Boy on the bench combined with key players like Rafael Marquez Lugo, Adrian Aldrete, Jaime Lozano and Gerardo Lugo should make this season a tricky one for a Morelia side that reached the semifinal of the playoffs last time out and the final the season before that.
Ruben Omar Romano is the new coach and the major signing to offset the major outgoings was former Betis and Villarreal forward Jefferson Montero, who has the potential to be the signing of the summer.
Carlos Morales, Francisco Torres, Carlos Ochoa, Jose Antonio Olvera, Rodrigo Salinas, Uriel Alvarez and Hibert Ruiz were the other reinforcements for the team, but it would be a surprise if Morelia reached the heights of last season.
Player to watch: Miguel Sabah remains the main man at Monarcas, especially now strikepartner Marquez Lugo has left the club. The 34-year-old´s chemistry with Montero is vital to Morelia´s chances this season.
Stadium: Morelos (40,000)
Last season: 4th
This season: 10th
The Xolos were many neutrals second team last season due to their newness, ability to pack out their stadium and the way they very nearly took Monterrey out of the playoff quarterfinals last season with a gutsy performance.
This time around the big loss is Uruguayan central midfield general Egidio Arevalo, who crossed the pond to Italy.
Experienced Argentine Cristian Pellerano is an able replacement and coupled with fellow newcomers Fidel “The Ecuadorian Neymar” Martinez and Alfredo Moreno, Tijuana should again be in the fight for the playoffs.
The contracts of American Edgar Castillo and Colombian Duvier Riascos were also sewed up, meaning there is an air of continuity within Tijuana that should serve them well.
Player to watch: Fidel Martinez promises to be a bundle of fun and has already been in the goals during the preseason. If the talented 22-year-old can adapt quickly to the game, the fast and tricky Martinez should be a great addition to the Liga MX.
Stadium: Estadio Caliente (16,000)
Last season: 7th
This season: 9th
Last season was nothing if not disappointing for the Mexico City university side.
A 13th place finish last season with a young side was simply not good enough for one of Mexico´s so-called “big four,” and especially not one that had been crowned champions just 12 months earlier.
The Pumas board has responded to fan unrest by splashing out on experienced players that are all tried and tested in Mexico´s top division: Emanuel Villa (Cruz Azul), Martin Romagnoli (Toluca), Luis García (Puebla) and Jaime Lozano (Morelia).
New coach Joaquin Del Olmo was something of a surprise choice to replace Guillermo Vazquez and the challenge represents the biggest task of his coaching career, but the new signings combined with the young talent already at the club should vastly improve Pumas and see them finish higher than last time out.
Player to watch: Paraguayan center back Dario Veron missed most of last season through injury. His return to the side is as big a plus as any of the new signings.
Stadium: Olimpico Universitario (63,000)
Last season: 13th
This season: 8th
The Dutch revolution is underway in Guadalajara, but advisor Johan Cruyff and coach John Van´t Schip have consistently preached patience and that the plan to rejuvenate and restructure the club is a long term project.
The club do have one eye on the present, however, highlighted by the signings of forward Rafael Marquz Lugo and midfielder Luis Perez. Both have impressed in preseason and should bring both experience and an added competition for places.
Van´t Schip will need time to introduce the pressing game and the 4-3-3 formation that he has been working on in preseason, but he has shown a high degree of flexibility in friendlies and that may be greatly to the team´s advantage when the season kicks off.
Chivas´ major short-term problem is that Miguel Ponce, Jorge Enrique and, most notably, Marco Fabian will miss the start of the season due to their inclusion in Mexico´s Olympic squad.
For that reason, a slow start should be expected, and the key to the season could be Chivas players holding their nerve, not losing confidence and coming back strong when the Olympic players return.
This is a team that finished first in the Apertura 2011 and the team, on paper, is now better than it was.
Chivas just have to hope and pray that Fabian resists the urge to stay in Europe after the Olympics is all said and done.
Player to watch: Rafael Marquez Lugo comes into a team that scored only 12 goals in 17 games, with Erick Torres seemingly suffering from a loss of confidence after exploding onto the first division scene. Marquez will not only shoulder the goal-getting responsibility, but also shield the limelight so the extremely talented Torres can mature without so much pressure.
Stadium: Omnilife (45,000)
Nickname: Chivas, Rebaño Sagrado, Rayadas
Titles: 11 (leader)
Last season: 15th
This season: 7th
by Tom Marshall (@MexicoWorldCup)
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