Liga MX returns to action this Friday as Tigres, fresh off its Apertura title, faces struggling Puebla to kick off the 2018 Clausura season.
When it comes to analyzing the favorites and who will win it all in May, there are no surprises: the path to the Clausura title must go through the two most talented squads coached by the best managers in the league: Tigres and Monterrey. It’s as simple as that.
Given the short preseason period between Apertura and Clausura tournaments–and the looming matches of CONCACAF Champions League play–however, it will be interesting to evaluate the fitness of last season’s finalists since their preseasons were far shorter than other clubs. It’s been three weeks since Ricardo Ferretti’s squad lifted the trophy against Los Rayados, meaning less time to prepare for the Clausura tournament and allowing other contenders such as Club America, Chivas and Cruz Azul to re-energize and bring in new faces.
All these teams had intensive preseasons, which included several friendlies in a short period of time. America was undefeated, with two victories against Zacatepec and Toluca, while Cruz Azul won three of its four warm-up matches under the team’s new manager, Pedro Caixinha. The Portuguese head coach joined La Maquina after being fired by Scottish club Rangers last October.
Tigres, meanwhile, deals with other problems thanks to its winger Jurgen Damm. The 25-year-old is out of action for two weeks due to first-degree burns to the right side of his face during a firework display over the holiday period. It's not exactly the kind of news Ferretti was hoping for.
The hope for the champions is that Andre Pierre-Gignac, who was disappointing by his own standards last season, comes back to form this time around. And if he does, that’s a scary thought for everybody else in the league, as his partnership with Enner Valencia would strengthen the club's chances of an Apertura-Clausura sweep.
As for Monterrey, everything was there for the taking last season. Antonio Mohamed’s squad looked invincible thanks to its rugged, direct approach and the firepower of the league’s most lethal striker, Aviles Hurtado. But against Tigres, the Colombian was non-existent, mainly due to an injury he suffered prior to the two-legged final. But it was his penalty miss in the 80th minute of the second leg that will haunt him for years to come. It was a sore sight for such a prolific player.
Hurtado, however, redeemed himself by scoring against Pachuca in the Copa MX final and helping Rayados win 1-0. We’ll see if he can continue his form for this season.
The arrival of Uruguayan winger Jonathan Urretaviscaya from Pachuca helps matters on the wide areas, as creativity going forward was a major issue against Tigres in the final.
There is much to discuss as the new season kicks off, especially since this specific Clausura precedes the World Cup, and in a league that features a heavy dose of South and Central American young talent that lives on the bubble of national team recognition, fans will hopefully be treated to some great individual performances throughout the campaign.
Here are three things to watch in the new Liga MX season:
Will Pachuca succeed?
After failing to qualify for the 2017 Apertura playoffs and losing to Monterrey in the Copa MX final, Pachuca won back some redemption in the FIFA Club World Cup by beating Al Jazira in the third-place match last month.
Since that victory, Los Tuzos made some smart acquisitions in the transfer market, as they looked to improve creatively by acquiring the services of pacey striker Kekuta Manneh from MLS on a free transfer, in addition to talented attackers Walter Gonzalez (Olimpia) and Sebastian Palacios (Talleres) and the return of Christian "El Chaco" Gimenez, who played for the club between 2006-2009. Defensively, Diego Alonso’s team has always been effective, but with the arrival of Colombian left back Dairon Mosquera (from Independiente de Santa Fe), this unit looks even stronger.
The main focus, however, will be on Keisuke Honda. It's taken some time for the Japanese star to adjust to the league after arriving from AC Milan last summer, but it’s my belief that this is the tournament where will see a lot more from the 31-year-old creative midfielder, and help Pachuca return to the playoffs.
Can Miguel Herrera make Club America great again?
America’s 2017 Apertura campaign wasn’t disastrous. Herrera after all helped the team reach third place, but as soon as the Liguilla started, scoring goals became a big problem.
As a result, Las Aguilas are reacting during the transfer window as recent reports suggest a transfer move for PSV Eindhoven’s Luuk de Jong is imminent.
“De Jong is the [player] that most interests us," said Herrera, speaking to ESPN on Tuesday evening. "We've followed it up and [the opportunity] has been laid on the table. I'm looking for a player with a bigger name than Gignac."
After failing to impress for Newcastle United in 2014, de Jong returned to the Netherlands and has been an extremely influential player for PSV, where he is a teammate of former Liga MX star Hirving Lozano. Last season he scored 26 goals in 33 league appearances.
De Jong could be the extra firepower Herrera needs, especially since Oribe Peralta has not been as effective as of late. America is also reportedly hoping to bring another experienced forward in former PSG striker Jeremy Menez, who is currently with Antalyaspor.
If successful, Herrera could finally have all the pieces to challenge Tigres and Monterrey for the title.
An important season for Mexican players looking to go to the World Cup
This is the season that precedes the World Cup, and since 40% of Mexico’s national team is made from domestic based players, many will hope to have a successful season in order to attract the attention of manager Juan Carlos Osorio.
Some players to watch out for include Cesar Montes, the young talented center back from Monterrey, and Alan Pulido, the prolific Chivas striker who is back after suffering an injury during last summer’s Gold Cup.
This needs to be a great season for Peralta if he wants to go to Russia and be part of Osorio’s attack. When it comes to his forwards, the Colombian manager is a firm believer of flexibility, and players like Javier Aquino might take Peralta's spot given that he offers goals as well as creativity from the wide areas. Peralta is more of a direct threat inside the box, but if the 33-year-old can have a strong Clausura, it could be the push that helps him book his ticket to Russia. De Jong’s potential arrival, however, might hamper his chances.
Then there is the case of Oswaldo Alanis, the Chivas center back who is currently training with the club’s third division team due to contract disputes with the club's board.
Alanis’s current deal expires in June and during the offseason he was hoping for a new deal, but Chivas was only prepared to offer a contract for another six months.
Alanis refused and as a result was demoted, stayed back in Guadalajara while the first team trained in Cancun.
"It's an institutional posture, nothing personal," Chivas CEO Jose Luis Higuera said in an interview with Radio Marca Claro. "We've treated him with great respect, but he decided not to renew with us. He asked for something that was too much."
What makes things even more complicated is that Liga MX, unlike with the Bosman ruling so prevalent in Europe, has a pacto de caballeros (gentlemen’s pact)between owners, where players are not allowed to sign for another club while their contract is essentially coming to an end. Alanis, therefore, is stuck with Chivas until a resolution materializes. That resolution doesn't look like it's imminent.
Matias Almeyda, the club's technical director, said on Wednesday that despite the fact Alanis remains with Chivas, he won't play a single minute in the Clausura.
Last month, the Mexican player’s association released a statement criticizing the situation and defending Alanis.
"[We're] tired of some Mexican club directors continuing practices that seeks to exert pressure to obligate players to sign contracts that they don't accept, including with future threats that put their career at risk," read some of the statement.
Due to the transfer window for domestic players already being closed, Alanis has two options: hold off and hope for a solution with his current club or move abroad. Either way, it’s not looking good for a player who is not only important for Chivas, but also a defender who has Osorio's admiration.