Lionel Messi poised to take scoring lead from Karim Benzema

Lionel Messi poised to take scoring lead from Karim Benzema

We’re done with the final international break of 2019 — hooray! — and I wouldn’t blame you if you needed a quick refresher on where things stand in La Liga.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are level on points at the top of table, with 25, and they have a game in hand on the rest of the league due to the rescheduling of the first leg of El Classico. But Atletico Madrid and Sevilla are just one point behind, Real Sociedad are two points back, and there are nine teams with 20 points or more. It’s very competitive in Spain this season, at least thus far.

This weekend Barcelona are playing at bottom-of-the-table Leganes, and Lionel Messi is an easy choice at Tier 1 forward and captain, especially if you saw his performance just prior to the break. Messi scored a hat trick in Barcelona’s 4-1 win over Celta Vigo – two goals via direct free kicks, and the other from the penalty spot.

Messi is now one goal behind Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema in the race for the Pichichi, but he’s played 404 fewer minutes than Benzema due to injuries at the start of the season.

Moving on to Tier 1 midfielder, Villarreal are only 11th in the table, but they’ve scored 26 goals this season – only Barcelona, with 33, have scored more. Santi Cazorla scored Villarreal’s goal (on a penalty) in their 3-1 loss at Mallorca prior to the break, and he had a good all-around game as well, including four shots and five chances created.

Cazorla has five goals and four assists on the season, and leads the league with 37 chances created – nearly three per game. Plus Villarreal are solid favorites this week, at home against 18th place Celta Vigo. Cazorla will be in my lineup this week as well.

Streak talk

Lucas Perez is arguably the hottest player in La Liga right now. He has scored in seven consecutive games, including his goal in Alaves’ 3-0 victory over Real Valladolid prior to the break.

However, three of Perez’s seven goals — including the one against Valladolid — have come via penalty kicks. He did take five shots against Valladolid, but Perez has taken only 18 shots in 13 games this season. And Alaves are underdogs at Eibar this weekend.

Instead of Perez, I’m going back to Villarreal for my Tier 2 forward this week: Karl Toko Ekambi. He hasn’t scored in the past three games, but took four shots in their most recent match against Mallorca.

Ekambi has five goals and two assists on the season, and his underlying numbers are much better than Perez’s. Ekambi is tied for sixth in the league in shots with 31. And he’s second in the league in xG (expected goals), according to TruMedia’s model, at 6.71. The only player ahead of him is Benzema at 7.91, and Benzema has played 145 more minutes than Ekambi.

Turning to Tier 2 midfielder, I was planning to have Lucas Ocampos in my lineup. He scored his fifth goal of the season, and third in the past four games, in Sevilla’s 2-1 win at Real Betis prior to the break. But Ocampos suffered a muscle injury while on international duty with Argentina, and he sat out training on Tuesday. Ocampos may not be available for Sevilla’s game at Valladolid on Sunday.

Instead, I’m going with Jose Campana, who is second in the league in chances created with 36, just one behind Cazorla. Campana also has two goals and two assists, and Levante are favored at home against 16th-place Mallorca, who have the third-worst defensive record in the league in terms of xG conceded at 23.36. Only Levante themselves (27.51) and Real Betis (24.41) are worse.

Other picks

Salva Sevilla, Mallorca (Tier 3 midfielder): Despite being 35 years old, and having not played in the first division since the 2016-17 season, Sevilla has been very productive so far this year. He has scored two goals, and is averaging nearly two chances created per game. He’s also tied for 15th in the league in passes completed, averaging 47.0 per game. And Levante v. Mallorca, featuring two of the three worst teams in the league in terms of xG conceded, could be a match with lots of goals in it.

Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid (Tier 1 defender): Ramos being Real Madrid’s primary penalty-taker has really paid off of late. He has scored a goal in three of their past four games if you include the Champions League, and he could have had more as Real Madrid earned a second penalty kick in two of those games, but Ramos handed those PKs off to Benzema. Ramos is also fifth in the league in passes completed, averaging 55.7 per match. And Real Madrid are at home this week, albeit against a relatively tough opponent in Real Sociedad.

Jesus Navas, Sevilla (Tier 2 defender): Navas has 20 chances created, three assists, and leads the league in xA (expected assists) at 3.58. Plus he’s 18th in the league in passes completed, and tops among all fullbacks, averaging 42.8 per game. And Sevilla are favored despite playing at Valladolid, who are fourth-worst in the league in xG conceded, at 23.00.

Jan Oblak, Atletico Madrid (Goalkeeper): Oblak has not kept a clean sheet in his past three La Liga matches, but he hasn’t conceded more than one goal in the league since mid-September. He still leads the league in clean sheets with seven. And Atletico Madrid are favored at Granada, who have scored 19 goals but have overachieved so far this year – they’re fourth-worst in the league in xG at 14.91.

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