Barça joy as amazing Abidal in line for final after cancer scare

After all that had taken place before it, the fact that an 89th-minute substitution became the moment of the night at the Nou Camp on Tuesday is a measure of Eric Abidal's incredible story this season.

The Frenchman's introduction for Carles Puyol with one minute left was cheered like a second Barcelona goal. And the manner of his introduction – a sprint across the pitch to the far touchline to take the very throw-in that had allowed play to stop for the change – was indicative of the spirit he has shown over the last two months.

There was no time to waste when Barcelona doctors discovered a 4cm long tumour in his liver on Tuesday 15 March. He underwent a three-hour operation two days later and was back on the pitch in a Champions League semi-final seven weeks later.

When he said goodbye to team-mates in an emotional send-off before the operation he joked that he would be available for selection the following weekend. There were optimistic assessments that he would indeed be back training around six weeks later but most team-mates contented themselves with the prognosis that he was likely to make a full recovery and return next season.

"He will come back and everything will revert to normal," said goalkeeper Victor Valdes during the uncertainty of the days following his diagnosis. "We know he is strong and being able to dedicate victories to him gives us even greater strength."

The final could easily have been dedicated to the absent Frenchman but it turns out he will be at Wembley on 28 May. "He has told us he is ready to help," said Pep Guardiola, buckling under Barcelona's never ending defensive injury problems before the semi-final second leg with Real Madrid. "He has lost a lot of weight but he is very, very strong and already fit enough to play 15 or 20 minutes."

With over three weeks between now and the final Abidal has every chance of playing a big part and even starting the match at Wembley. In every game since his operation Barcelona supporters have sung his name in the 22nd minute.

Barcelona's No 22 had already endeared himself to them with the way he has played. One extraordinary clearing header made while he was lying face down on the turf at the Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium in a hard-fought draw against Sevilla was typical of his "they shall not pass" spirit.

On Tuesday night he was tossed high in the air by his celebrating Barcelona team-mates, relieved he has won his most daunting battle.

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