Starting orders down Mexico way
It seems like only yesterday when Santos Laguna were crowned Clausura champions, with the images of Oswaldo Sanchez, Daniel Luduena, Matias Vuoso and Edgar Castillo hoisting the famous trophy still fresh in memory of Mexican football fans.
Now, though, almost two months on, the talk is of new challenges not past glories as the 2008 Apertura kicks off with the arrival of a host new names, the return of some old ones and no small amount of emotion.
The title candidates
Since the Mexican league adopted the twin-championship format in 1996, the task of winning both league titles in a single year has proved very difficult. In fact, only Pumas UNAM have achieved the feat it to date, securing both the Apertura and Clausura tournaments in 2004 when under the stewardship of Hugo Sanchez.
Yet this is precisely the challenge Clausura champions Santos Laguna have set themselves for the upcoming campaign, and it is one they seem more than capable of achieving. With their championship-winning side intact, the same coach on the bench and their fanatical support as passionate as ever, the Laguneros start as ample favourites to defend their crown. However, that is not to say it will be easy, with fellow title-aspirants America, their opening day opponents, among a host of teams aiming to rain on their parade.
The Aguilas, under new coach Ramon Angel Diaz, will be determined to draw a line under their last-placed finish in the recent Clausura and retake their place among the country's elite. With the arrival of Alfredo Moreno, Enrique Vera and Juan Carlos Medina, plus the return from injury of Federico Insua, the capital side have a very different look about them.
Two other heavyweights of the Mexican game, Cruz Azul and Guadalajara, have also been flexing their muscles in the close season. The former have appointed Benjamin Galindo as new coach and secured highly rated Argentina winger Marcelo Carrusca on loan to add to a squad of talented youngsters. Meanwhile Chivas will be hoping their home-grown players come up trumps once again and fill the void left by the Omar Bravo and Francisco Rodriguez, recently departed for Europe, and first-choice keeper Luis Michel, out with a long-term injury.
Expectations of their own
Those candidates aside, there are a slew of other teams who have the credentials to aspire to silverware this year. For Pumas UNAM, much will depend on how well their foreign signings, Dante Lopez and Martin Bravo, fit in. A similar question mark hangs over Atlas, where new boys Dario Botinelli, Gonzalo Vargas and Ariel Bogado look great prospects on paper but still have it all to prove.
Pachuca, meanwhile, will be banking on the vast experience of their new Argentinian striker Bruno Marioni to further improve an excellent squad. As well as the Apertura, the Tuzos have their sights set on the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2008, which takes place this December. Nor should we discount San Luis or Atlante either, with both outfits capable of mixing it with the bigger clubs, as they have shown in recent years.
The prospects for Monterrey's two teams, Tigres and CF Monterrey, are less easy to predict. Once again the pair look to have two of the strongest squads in the country, but for so long now they have been incapable of living up to expectations. With proven coaches Manuel Lapuente and Ricardo La Volpe now in the respective teams' hotseats, could this finally be the season when they cross the threshold from promise to delivery?
Then there is Toluca, who have put their faith in a Mexican coach in Jose Manuel de la Torre and opted to reinforce their squad with established local players. As for Necaxa, Morelia and Jaguares, their goal for the season will surely be to consolidate their place among the top sides once and for all.
Out to avoid the drop
At first glance, there would appear to be three sides whose main goal will be to maintain their top-flight status. The first of these are the recently-promoted Ciudad Juarez, the first team from the city to grace the Primera Division for almost two decades. Determined that their stay should not be a fleeting one, the Indios have brought in no fewer than 18 new players, including respected Colombian international Andres Chitiva.
The other two candidates, Puebla and Tecos UAG, have contracted 15 and 8 new players respectively as they prepare for what looks set to be a fierce battle to avoid relegation to the Primera A. And though the afore-mentioned Tigres and Necaxa will be hoping it is the top-half of the table that preoccupies them this year, they too know that they will need to start accumulating points right from the off if they are not to be dragged into a relegation dog-fight.
With enticing fixtures like Cruz Azul-Guadalajara, Tigres-Pachuca and Santos-America among those on offer on Matchday One this Saturday, expect drama and emotion right from the start down Mexico way.