Liga MX storylines: Will Leon compete again? Can Michel inspire Pumas?

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MEXICO CITY -- Reigning champions Tigres will be looking to defend their Liga MX crown when the 2019 Apertura kicks off this weekend, but there'll be plenty of teams hunting them down.

Here are five themes to look out for as Mexico's top division swings back into gear.

Title favourites

Three teams are ahead of the rest of the field: Tigres, America and Monterrey. All have had fairly stable summers in the transfer market so far and should be expected to finish near the top of the league.

Just behind that triumvirate is Cruz Azul, who has once again strengthened with the signings of Guillermo "Pol" Fernandez and Juan Escobar. Pedro Caixinha's team is looking to win its first title since 1997 and should be in the hunt, like it has been for the past two seasons.

Then there is Leon, Pachuca, Toluca, Santos Laguna and perhaps Club Tijuana -- all of whom will be looking to make the playoffs as a minimum.

But an aside has to be made about Leon: La Fiera was outstanding in reaching the final last time out and there is a case for placing it in with the aforementioned four favourites -- especially with new signings Leonardo Ramos and Ismael Sosa increasing competition for places upfront -- but there is still a lingering question over whether the Guanajuato team can keep that sort of form up for another season.

The likes of Necaxa, Chivas and Pumas may be able to cause a surprise, but if any of the other teams make the postseason they will have had a spectacular regular season.

MVP candidates/Players to watch

The outstanding candidates are Tigres striker Andre-Pierre Gignac (even if he is now 33) and America's holding midfielder Guido Rodriguez, who won last season's player of the year award.

But there are a number of names -- mainly attacking players -- that could stake a claim. Monterrey's Rodolfo Pizarro (if he stays) and Maxi Meza could be in with a shout, with Edwin Cardona (Pachuca), Angel Mena (Leon), Agustin Marchesin (America), Mateus Uribe (America) and even San Luis' new signing Ricardo Centurion all possessing the potential to challenge.

The player to watch, however, is undoubtedly Giovani dos Santos. His move to Club America after leaving MLS and the LA Galaxy was a surprise but, if Dos Santos can regain his form, he has the ability to impact Liga MX and there'll be an intrigue about how he performs.

Potential surprises

How much will Pumas improve under Michel Gonzalez? European coaches in Liga MX can be hit-or-miss, but Michel was forged at Real Madrid and has 10 years' experience in different European leagues. Pumas may not have the strongest side, but it does have a coach that could give it an edge.

Then there is Atletico San Luis. The prospect of Spanish owners in Liga MX ownership meetings could shake things up, while the signings of Centurion and goalkeeper Axel Werner show the club means business, even if the step up from the second division is significant.

It wouldn't necessarily be a surprise if Santos Laguna -- who has won three titles over the last seven years -- did well, but Uruguayan coach Guillermo Almada's outwardly attacking style should shake up the Torreon team and make Los Guerreros well worth watching.

Chivas' relegation struggle

The concept of promotion/relegation in Liga MX is loose. Veracruz and Lobos BUAP -- the last two teams to, in theory, face the drop -- were able to pay a fine to stay in the league, while FC Juarez simply bought Lobos.

But the stigma associated with finishing in last place of the relegation table (which is worked out over the past six seasons) is still there, especially for the bigger teams. And, once again, the really big fish facing that prospect is Chivas, arguably the best supported team in Mexico.

The Guadalajara club begins the season above only Veracruz, Atletico San Luis and Veracruz in the relegation table. Should things go wrong early doors -- and the preseason hasn't been great, despite new signings Oribe Peralta, Antonio Briseno and Oswaldo Alanis -- Tomas Boy's position as coach could become unstable.

The pressure would rise even more and the club could once again be looking for a Matias Almeyda-type figure to inspire them back to the top.

The Veracruz problem

Reports that Veracruz wouldn't even be able to start the tournament because of their players' unpaid wages were still lingering in the week leading up to the Apertura.

Veracruz has long been Liga MX's "ugly duckling" and it'll be no surprise to see it near the bottom of the table once again. Newcomers FC Juarez could also struggle in its first season, with Queretaro, Atlas and Morelia the teams that will need to punch above their weight to force themselves into the top half.