It's prediction season, gang. With Liga MX kicking off tonight, I thought I'd separate the league's good teams out into categories and guess what level they're on this season. The first category is teams that I expect to be in contention for Liguilla up until the end of the year, but that I don't see as real title contenders. The second is the real contenders. The final category is for the favorite to win the whole thing, and I'm not exactly going out on a limb with that prediction.
Close, but no cigar
Tijuana - There's no question that Tijuana have the talent to push for a title, but they've downgraded at striker, both in depth and in quality. Herculez Gomez is a good signing, but it's tough to see him replacing the production of Alfredo Moreno and Duiver Riascos. While Jorge Almiron is held in high regard, he's also an unproven young coach. It's just too tough to pick them at the moment.
Morelia - Probably a season of mid-table mediocrity for Monarcas. Like Tijuana, they have a fairly unproven manager in Carlos Bustos. Their first XI is very good, but they have very little depth.
Chivas - The talent is there and Benjamin Galindo is a great manager, but I need to see something spectacular before I believe it from Chivas. It'll be tough to take them serious as a real title contender until they're in the semifinals of Liguilla, regardless of the talent on their books.
Leon - The Carlos Slim-backed outfit has brought in a ton of talent in recent windows and should sneak into Liguilla, but relying on Franco Arizala and Mauro Boselli to carry them to a title seems suspect.
Pachuca - The other Carlos Slim-backed outfit. They've brought in even more players than Leon and have an impressive-looking roster, but it's difficult to see how they're going to fit all of the pieces together.
Santos - The veterans that Santos is built around remained with the team this summer, but there isn't quite as much talent around them as there used to be. If Oribe Peralta regains his form from the 2011-12 season and becomes one of the league's top scorers, they could very easily sneak into the elite group.
Aldo de Nigris and Walter Ayovi were massive departures for the Rayados, but Efrain Juarez and Dorlan Pabon should make for adequate replacements. Even though Juarez has had a couple of rough seasons, he's a versatile player coming into a team with minimal central midfield depth, and he should be given every opportunity to shine in that role. It remains to be seen if Pabon will find his footing in Mexico, but it's very possible that he could be an upgrade over Aldo.
Otherwise, the faces of Monterrey have stuck around. Humberto Suazo, Jesus Zavala, Jose Maria Basanta, Leobardo Lopez and Jonathan Orozco form the best spine in the country, while Cesar Delgado and Neri Cardozo provide excellent support on the wings. Hiram Mier and Severo Meza, who have established themselves as regulars in the Mexican national team, can play a variety of positions in defense and midfield depending on Victor Manuel Vucetich's tactics and the availability of other players. They have talent all over and a lot of players who can fill in all over the pitch.
Finding a regular midfield partner -- whether that be Juarez, Meza or a youngster -- for Zavala will be key. The Rayados are also going to need to get Pabon scoring regularly to become legitimate title contenders. He's one of the most talented forwards in Mexico, but he didn't stick in Europe because of homesickness. Is Mexico going to be close enough to his native Colombia for him to deal with that, or has he gotten over those issues?
It almost seems like mocking Cruz Azul fans to call them a contender for the title. They're close every year and went through a string of three consecutive runner-up finishes at the end of last decade. In the last tournament, they lost in the most heartbreaking way possible, giving up a late equalizer to America goalkeeper Moises Muñoz before going on to lose the final on penalties.
The Blue Machine had a couple of fairly important departures, but adequate, if not superior replacements have come in. Joao Rojas has replaced Alejandro Vela while Jeronimo Animone comes to the team to replace Javier Orozco. Nestor Araujo and Nicolas Bertolo have left as well, but both were disappointing and Cruz Azul have faith in the young players coming up behind them.
The biggest question mark for Cruz Azul is whether or not their older players can hold up. Gerardo Torrado returned to form last season, but he had a rough summer with Mexico and can't play at the highest level forever. Luis Perea, Mariano Pavone, Chaco Jimenez and Israel Castro are all on the wrong side of 30 as well. Pablo Barrera looks primed to have a big season, but his injury history is always a bit scary.
Cruz Azul will be contenders if they stay healthy, but that's a big if.
The departures of Diego Reyes and 'Chucho' Cristian Bentiez's are absolutely massive for Club America, but they won't be enough to keep them with competing with the big boys. They're certainly not favorites to repeat as champions, but they'll be expected to make Liguilla comfortably and avoid getting run over when they get there.
Raul Jimenez has the biggest spotlight on him, but he'll need Narciso Mina and Luis Gabriel Rey to help him make up for the loss of Chucho. In defense, Erik Pimentel will need to step up with Reyes gone, while defensive midfielder Carlos Gutierrez could be asked to play a bit in the back line if Miguel Herrera sticks with a back three.
But even more so than the direct replacements for Reyes and Chucho, the burden to pick up after them falls on the America midfield and wingbacks. Chucho and Reyes were so good during the last tournament that America could afford to push their wingbacks high up the pitch and play with only one true defensive center midfielder. Herrera might need to be a bit more conservative this season, while Jesus Molina and new acquisition Andres Andrade will need to strike up a great partnership.
Hugo Ayala's late-season injury, along with Queretaro's relegation, was a death blow to Tigres' 2012 Clausura campaign. They looked like the favorites to clinch the title until Ayala went down for the season with an injury. Queretaro's relegation meant 9th-placed Monterrey, their local rivals, would meet them in Liguilla. Monterrey present a worse matchup than most for Tigres anyway, but without Ayala in the back, the Rayados ran over them.
Ayala's back from surgery and none of Tigres' key players have departed. Elias Hernandez and Luis Garcia are gone, but both had disappointing years and probably won't be missed too much. Ayala's back line mates Israel Jiménez, Juninho and Jorge Torres Nilo combine with him to make up Mexico's best back line. Danilinho, Damian Alvarez, Lucas Lobos and Tito Villa are arguably the best front line in the league.
Where Tigres' question marks lie are in their goalkeeper, center of midfield and their attacking depth. Enrique Palos is a good goalkeeper, but certainly not one of Mexico's five or six best. Jose Francisco Torres and Carlos Salcido are a solid, Liguilla-level partnership, but not quite up to the level of the rest of the team. Backup striker Rodrigo Mora showed flashes of brilliance in recent spells with Defensor Sporting, Peñarol and River Plate, but he's had an inconsistent career.
Obviously, this is a bit nit-picky. When Palos, Torres, Salcido and Mora are a team's questionable players, they're doing something right. Those are rock solid role players for almost any other Liguilla team, not potential holes. We're really just picking out potential holes in a truly great team, not in a contending team. There's no doubt that Tigres are very serious contenders, and they should probably be considered favorites to win the Apertura.