This weekend's La Liga schedule looks a little different, and that will impact your fantasy soccer decisions.
Real Madrid will not be involved, due to their participation in the Club World Cup. Their game at Villarreal has been pushed back to early January. That means, among other things, that you can't pick Sergio Ramos for your fantasy team. He's fourth overall in points, tops among defenders, and has been a staple on my team each and every week. But not this time around.
Barcelona are the biggest favorites of the weekend by far, at home against ninth-place Celta Vigo. And I will have a couple Barca players on my team (see below).
But this week I'll be relying even more on Valencia -- which may come as a surprise, given that they're in 14th place, and just four points above the relegation zone.
But Valencia isn't a typical 14th-place team. In fact, they've only lost three games this season. The problem is, they've only won three games - believe it or not, 10 of their first 16 games have been draws.
Valencia's problem has been goals -- they've only scored 13 of them, the lowest total in the league. But they've got a great opportunity to up that total on Sunday at home against bottom-of-the-table Huesca, who have conceded a league-worst 32 goals, 21 of them away from home.
There's a reason why Valencia are the second-biggest favorites of the weekend.
Rodrigo Moreno, like his team, is off to pretty poor start. He only has two goals and two assists, despite making 14 appearances and 12 starts. However, he scored Valencia's goal in last week's 1-1 draw at Eibar. And this is a guy who scored 16 goals last season. Rodrigo's certainly off that pace so far this year, but he's still tied for fifth in the league in shots (43), seventh in shots on goal (18), and has an expected goals total of 6.13. He'll be my Tier 2 forward this week.
Teammate Dani Parejo also has two goals and two assists, but his primary role is being a facilitator, as evidenced by him being 10th in the league in passes completed (775), and tied for sixth in chances created (32). However, he's also Valencia's primary penalty-taker, which is a bonus. Parejo finished with a decent total of 9.5 points last week, but before that he'd finished in double figures in four straight games, with a low of 15.2 points, and two games with 20 or more. He'll be my Tier 2 midfielder this week.
And then we come to goalkeeper. The reason Valencia have been able to draw so many games, despite their struggles offensively, is that they've conceded just 13 goals in 16 games. Only Atletico Madrid and Getafe have conceded fewer (12). Neto has been one of the better keepers so far this season, with five clean sheets -- two behind league leader Jan Oblak -- and having only conceded more than one goal once in his past 16 games, including the Champions League.
Huesca have scored 14 goals in 16 games, only one more than Valencia. But they're tied for eighth in shots (211), and eighth in shots on goal (72). I like Neto's chances of delivering a clean sheet ... or at least limiting the damage to one goal, plus garnering a few saves.
Lionel Messi, Barcelona (Tier 1 forward): If you don't pick Messi, and captain him, coming off his three-goal, two-assist, 61.6-point performance last week against Levante, you're making a mistake. Celta Vigo are good offensively, but they've conceded 24 goals in 16 games.
Sergio Canales, Real Betis (Tier 1 midfielder): It's slim pickings here this week, with the Real Madrid players unavailable, Sevilla's Pablo Sarabia and Ever Banega both suspended due to yellow-card accumulation, and Barcelona's Philippe Coutinho coming off the bench the past two games. Canales has two goals and an assist in his five appearances since the start of November, has at least three chances created in three straight games, and Real Betis are favorites at home against 13th-place Eibar, who have also conceded 24 goals.
Enis Bardhi, Levante (Tier 3 midfielder): He only has one goal and two assists so far this season, but he scored nine goals last year. Bardhi's still taken 33 shots in 15 appearances, and Levante are playing at 19th-place Rayo Vallecano, who have conceded 31 goals in 16 games, including 19 in eight games at home.
Gerard Pique, Barcelona (Tier 1 defender): He scored a goal in last week's 5-0 win over Levante, and has actually scored a goal in three of his past four games, including the Champions League. But Pique's real value comes via his passing and defensive work, which is why he's the second-ranked defender in fantasy points, behind Ramos.
Bernardo Espinosa, Girona (Tier 2 defender): He has now finished in double figures points-wise in six of the past nine weeks, with totals of 9.9 and 9.5 points in two of the other three games. Bernardo also continues to be the league leader in clearances with 126, 21 more than any other player.