Fantasy La Liga: Messi's status looms large

Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona reacts while he looks at the match from the substitute bench Manuel Blondeau/AOP Press/DPPI/Icon Sportswire

Two days before the start of the 2019-20 La Liga season, the big question is whether or not Lionel Messi be available for Barcelona's opener at Athletic Bilbao. Messi suffered a calf injury in his first preseason training session, after returning from Copa America duty with Argentina. He trained on his own on Wednesday, leaving his status for the curtain-raiser at San Mamés Stadium very much in question.

If Messi does start on Friday, he'll be my Tier 1 forward and captain. Just by way of reminding you how good Messi was last season, recall that he scored 36 goals -- 15 more than any other player in the league. Not only that, but Messi was also tied for the league lead in assists with 13, while also leading the league in both shots (where he had 55 more than any other player) and chances created.

If Messi does not start, I'm planning to go with his teammate Luis Suarez instead. Suarez was tied with Real Madrid's Karim Benzema at second in the league with 21 goals last season. Suarez's xG (expected goals) total was even higher, at 23.14.

Now, Joao Felix is tempting, as he's looked fantastic in the preseason. Plus, Atletico Madrid is the biggest favorite of the week, playing at home against Getafe. But my philosophy when it comes to Matchweek 1 is to pick players I'm familiar with from the previous season, as opposed to counting on players who've changed teams and/or leagues.

I'd rather wait and see how new players settle in. That's also why I'm going with Dani Parejo at Tier 1 midfielder, as opposed to Eden Hazard. Hazard was brilliant for Chelsea last season, with 16 goals and a Premier League-leading 15 assists. That said, he only scored one goal in Real Madrid's seven preseason matches.

Parejo was the top fantasy midfielder in La Liga last season, finishing with nine goals and seven assists. He was also third in the league in chances created with 81, and eighth in passes completed (52.8 per game). Valencia finished fourth last season, and open up at home against Real Sociedad.

V for victory

I'm making a slight exception when it comes to picking my Tier 2 forward. Maxi Gomez has changed teams, but he has stayed in La Liga, shifting over from Celta Vigo to Valencia. Gomez scored 13 goals last season. That's pretty good, and he scored 18 goals the season before. Celta really struggled last year, barely avoiding relegation. I think Gomez will benefit from playing for a better team, and he's still only 22 years old, so there's plenty of room for improvement.

Villarreal was also mired in the relegation battle last season, eventually finishing in 14th place. However, their goal difference was only minus-3, and their xG difference was actually a net zero, eighth-best in the league. Santi Cazorla returned from a long injury layoff to have an excellent season, scoring four goals and finishing in a tie for third in the league with 10 assists. He was also fifth in chances created with 72, and 25th in passes completed, averaging 38.9 per game.

Villarreal is one of the biggest favorites of the week, at home against newly-promoted Granada. As such, Cazorla will be my Tier 2 midfielder and teammate Samuel Chukwueze will be my Tier 3 midfielder. The 20-year-old is one of the most exciting young players in the league. Chukwueze had five goals and two assists last season, despite playing only 1,708 minutes. He averaged more than three shots-per-90 minutes.

Other picks

  • Sergio Ramos, Real Madrid (Tier 1 defender): Last season, Ramos finished third in the league in fantasy points among defenders, behind Barcelona's Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba. However, he played seven fewer games than Pique and eight fewer than Alba due to injury. In other words, he bested both of them in terms of points-per-game. After the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo last summer, Ramos took over penalty-kick duties for Real Madrid, and scored six goals. That gives him the biggest upside of any player in this tier.

  • Aissa Mandi, Real Betis (Tier 2 defender): Real Betis finished 10th in La Liga last season, but they were second in possession at 62.0%, behind only Barcelona (64.5%). Mandi led the league in passes completed, averaging 68.2 per game. One note of caution though, Betis has a new coach -- Quique Setien is gone, replaced by former Espanyol boss Rubi -- and it remains to be seen how much the team's style will change.

  • Jan Oblak, Atletico Madrid (Goalkeeper): Atletico finished second last season, ahead of Real Madrid, primarily because of their defense. They only conceded 29 goals, which was six fewer than any other team in the league. Oblak posted 20 clean sheets, four more than any other goalkeeper in the league. As mentioned above, Atletico is the biggest favorite of the week, at home against Getafe.