By Richard Martin
REUTERS - Barcelona will have to prove they are not dependant on Lionel Messi when the champions visit Granada on Sunday without their suspended Argentine talisman as they seek to keep La Liga leaders Real Madrid in their sights.
Messi, who is serving a one-match domestic ban having accumulated five yellow cards, has scored 41 goals in all competitions this term for Barca and has been at his mesmeric best in recent weeks.
While Granada, who 19th in the standings and hurtling towards relegation, still believe it would take a near-perfect performance to cause an upset, the stats show Barca are vulnerable without their main man.
He has missed three of Barca's 28 league games this term and the consequences of his absence have been dramatic, with the team dropping points on two occasions, drawing with Malaga and losing at Celta.
They also lost 2-1 to Alaves when he came on as a substitute and gave away the lead to draw 1-1 with Atletico Madrid after he had been forced off the pitch through injury.
Barca's unconvincing record without the Argentine, who was also hit with a four-game international ban this week for insulting an official, has not gone unnoticed by the Spanish media, who have said the team suffer from "Messi dependence".
Battling Granada, however, know they will still need to be at their best to get any sort of result.
"Messi's absence is a big deal but we'll still have to produce a complete performance that verges on perfection if we want to get a result against them," said Granada's Isaac Cuenca, a former Barca forward.
Barca, who are two points behind Real, having played a game more, will be able to count on the two other parts of their formidable strikeforce in Luis Suarez and Neymar.
Brazilian Neymar is on a particularly hot streak after scoring for his country in 4-1 and 3-0 wins over Uruguay and Paraguay respectively.
Suarez, meanwhile, has happy memories of his last visit to Granada, where he fired Barca to the title on the final day of last season with a hat-trick in a 3-0 win.
Real have an almost clean bill of health for their game at home to Alaves, with suspended midfielder Casemiro their only absentee.
The visitors, however, will be without their midfield heartbeat Marcos Llorente, who is prevented from playing against his parent club due to the terms of his loan deal.
Alaves, who have reached the King's Cup final this season for the first time in their history, have been a thorn in the side of Spain's biggest clubs on their return to the top flight, having won at Barca and drawn 1-1 at Atletico Madrid.
"We won at the Nou Camp and now we're going to try and do it at the Bernabeu," said defender Victor Laguardia.
"But we know you have to play at 200 percent against these teams if you have any chance of winning and you need a dose of luck."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)