If you've been reading this gigantic opus of a preview, you're probably wondering, "When am I going to get to the really good stuff? The meat and potatoes of this preview?" Well, friend, you have arrived. After powering through way too many words on teams who aren't very good, you have reached the promised land.
This section is about the four teams who have a better than average shot at winning the Mexican Primera's 2011 Clausura tournament. I'm going to plow through them in the order that they finished in the regular season of the 2010 Apertura in order to avoid giving away my picks. Of course, you can just cheat and scroll to the bottom, if you want. This category's newest arrivals go first, since they seriously choked last season and didn't even make Liguilla.
Tigres de la UANL
2010 Apertura Finish: 9th
Tigres are a very big, very well-supported side. Last season, they had a pretty decent squad and still managed to choke big time, missing out on Liguilla all together. The fans and the board reacted poorly to this and proceeded to spend what most teams in this hemisphere would consider to be a lot of money. Jonathan Bornstein came from Chivas USA on a free, but they spent an estimated $8m on their other three big signings. Add this to a very good defense and some great youth academy players, and you have a title contender.
I've already written about all of the wonderful new tactical options that Tigres has with their new players, but almost more important than tactics is the fact that their new players are all really good. Okay, so some USMNT fans just thought to themselves "Are you implying Jonathan Bornstein is good?" Well, I'm implying that he's talented and that he's pretty good when played in the right system. Their other new arrivals, Danilinho, Carlos Ochoa, and Hector Mancilla are also really good players and are going to provide a lot of spark to their attack. They join established stars Lucas Lobos and Damien Alvarez, as well as budding young stars Francisco Acuña and Manuel Viniegra.
So, there are the positives. The negatives are that the teams around them are all still really, really good. Cruz Azul, Santos Laguna, and Monterrey are all at least as good as they were last season, or at least they should be. It's going to be a tall order for Tigres to mount a significant challenge to them. In the Liguilla, though, anything can happen.
2010 Apertura Finish: 3rd
Santos may have finished 3rd in the regular season and runners up in Liguilla, but it would be tough to argue against them being the most entertaining side in Mexico at their absolute best. This is partially because they have some seriously entertaining attacking players, but also because their talent in defense allows them to push a lot of bodies forward in attack.
Between veteran goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, central defenders Felipe Baloy and Jonathan Lacerda, and defensive midfielder Juan Rodriguez, Santos have a rock solid defensive corps. They allowed 19 goals last season, but don't be fooled into thinking that means that the likes of San Luis, Jaguares, and Morelia are on a similar level when it comes to defensive talent. First of all, Santos had a couple of really odd stinkers that skewed the numbers a bit. Second, because Santos has those four dudes holding it down, they can really go for it. Their 19 goals allowed has more to do with stylistic choices than ability. There isn't a whole lot that gets by Rodriguez in the midfield, and if a counter does get by him and the rest of the midfield easily, Lacerda and Baloy are often left out on an island by themselves, trying to stop three on twos or four on twos. The fact that Santos allowed 19 goals last tournament tells you how good these guys really are.
Their attacking corps of Cristian Benitez, Carlos Darwin Quintero, Fernando Arce, and Daniel Ludueña is as flashy and entertaining as they come. They're accented by a host of solid role players and up and coming young talents, as well as their fullbacks bombing forward. Benitez was the top scorer in the last tournament, but he probably couldn't have done it without the system and teammates that he has. Ludueña is a serious creative force at his best, Arce had a spectacular tournament last year, even by his high standards, and 23 year old Darwin Quintero seems to steadily improve every season.
2010 Apertura Finish: 2nd (Champions, won Liguilla)
The chaaaaaaaaaampiooooooooooooons! I don't care if that's from the UEFA Champions League song, that should be played whenever anyone wins anything. It's an epic song. It should just play while Victor Manuel Vucetich walks around. It's the kind of song that says "I'm the realest dude."
In addition to winning the 2010 Apertura, Monterrey finished first in the 2010 Bicentenario before getting upset in Liguilla, and won the 2009 Apertura. This squad has been one of the two or three best, if not the best for three consecutive tournaments now. They even got the No. 1 seed in Liguilla while Humberto Suazo was on loan at Real Zaragoza in La Liga. They're a cohesive unit loaded with talent, and they probably have the best manager in the country in Vucetich.
While Cristian Benitez won the scoring title last tournament, it seems like there's a general consensus 'round these parts that Humberto Suazo is the best player in North America. He's accented by a variety of talented strikers, highlighted by Aldo de Nigris. Osvaldo Martinez, Luis Perez, and Neri Cardozo do a great job providing service while Jesus Zavala bangs some heads in the middle and a great defense holds things down at the back. Walter Ayovi can play as a fullback or in the midfield, and he's been a key component of their team as well. They're balanced, talented, deep, and cohesive. Monterrey is no more or less a title contender than they have been in the previous three tournaments. It would be pretty stunning to see them do anything but finish in the top four and challenge for the title. They're just too good to go anywhere.
2010 Apertura Finish: 1st
Close but no cigar yet again for the Buffalo Bills of the Mexican Primera. This time they were upset by Pumas in the first round of Liguilla and spared the pain of losing yet another final, but the disappointment was almost as severe as the losses in the last tie of Liguilla. Cruz Azul were the best team in the last tournament by almost any measure. They finished on top, scored the most goals, allowed the least goals, and defeated all of their closest rivals, Monterrey, Santos, and Club America.
Despite only allowing 13 goals, most people believed that the center of defense was the weakest part of Cruz Azul's team last season. They responded by shipping out Joel Huiqui and bringing in Chilean international Waldo Ponce, representing an upgrade in the minds of most. They've also added forward Isaac Romo, midfielder Marcelo Palau, and winger Hugo Droguett. The last of those players, Droguett, is the only player that seems likely to get significant minutes this season, but the point is, Cruz Azul are deeper than they were last year. They also have a few youngsters that could finally be ready to make the jump up in competition this year.
So, how much stock do we take in the fact that they're still Cruz Azul, and Cruz Azul is really good at choking? I think this only matters if it's deep in the heads of the players, and I have know way of knowing whether or not it is. What I do know is that they have one of the four most talented teams in Mexico. Some might argue that it is the most talented. I also know that it's reasonable to expect slightly less production from Chaco Gimenez and slightly more from the two main strikers, Emanuel Villa and Javier Orozco, representing a stagnant amount of goal production. The spine of Jose de Jesus Corona, Horacio Cervantes, Gerardo Torrado, and Gonzalo Pineda are still there. They had one slipped disc, but surgery has been performed and Huiqui is gone. This team is really, really good, despite the choking tendencies.
Predictions (Regular Season)
Cruz Azul: 2nd
Santos Laguna: 1st
America def. Tigres
Monterrery def. Pumas
Cruz Azul def. San Luis
Santos def. Chivas
Santos def. America
Cruz Azul def. Monterrey
Santos def. Cruz Azul
Your Mexican Primera 2011 Clausura Champions: Santos Laguna