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Former Barcelona defender Eric Abidal stands on the verge of remarkable comeback with a third World Cup finals

A Different League: The French defender is back in the national set-up after his liver transplant last year

The battle of the bionic men for a place in the World Cup will dominate Friday's play-offs, but nothing Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo manage will trump Eric Abidal's story if the man who came back from cancer to lift the European Cup makes it to the World Cup finals after a liver transplant.

It was not the worst news Abidal had ever been given when Barcelona broke it to the defender last summer that they were not offering him a new contract. Doubtful of his ability to withstand the rigours of a full season and concerned by possible complications – the risk of infection after a transplant diminishes with time, but slowly – Barça talked of a position in youth development that spelled out retirement.

There were discussions with new Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola but he had doubts too and so Abidal moved to Monaco where he has played 12 of their 13 games so far this season. He is slower than he was in his galloping full-back days but having picked him in the centre alongside Arsenal's Laurent Koscielny in their last two qualifiers, France coach Didier Deschamps is expected to start him on Friday against Ukraine in Kiev as he bids for a place in what will be his third World Cup finals.

Abidal's part in the mutiny against the incompetence of Raymond Domenech at the last World Cup means reaction to him in France remains mixed. "He was one of those on the bus," say some scornfully, referring to the meeting that took place on the team coach, curtains closed, as the players refused to train in 2010 in Cape Town.

Others have decided that harking back to behaviour that, regardless of whether it was justified, embarrassed France, is small-minded in view of everything that has happened since.

Abidal was diagnosed with cancer of the liver less than a year after those controversial finals for France. The horror of the original diagnosis was brought home again recently when in a radio interview journalist Emilio Perez de Rozas retold the moment when he was with Barcelona sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta as he first heard the news.

Perez de Rozas says Zubizarreta took a phone call in the middle of their meeting and after a brief conversation in which he did all the listening and almost none of the talking, he returned to the journalists' briefing. But after a few moments he broke down, saying: "I'm sorry I can't concentrate on what you are saying they have just told me Abidal has cancer".

When Abidal told team-mates he needed surgery he joked that he would be back for the following weekend's game. As it was he started his first match just 10 weeks later and then played in the 2011 European Cup final, lifting the trophy after the 3-1 win over Manchester United.

"Sportsmen have a special kind of mental strength, and that helped me," he said. But he would need it all over again in 2012 when traces of the tumour were found in a subsequent check-up and Abidal was told he needed a transplant from a donor.

His story is not just one of bravery. Lots of brave people don't make it. He is eternally grateful to cousin Gerard who donated part of his liver – donors are at greater risk than recipients in such operations. And he knows the early detection that meant the original tumour was still small was a life-saving factor.

But his insatiable appetite for playing has played its part. Thirteen months after the transplant Abidal was back on the pitch, and now a World Cup finals place beckons if France can get past Ukraine.

Ronaldo to be pipped again – this time by Ribéry

Voting closes for this year's Ballon d'Or on Friday. The Real Madrid supporters who waited at the players' exit of the Bernabeu last weekend to sing Ronaldo's name have no doubts who should end Lionel Messi's four-year domination. With 62 goals for the calendar year (and counting), the Real forward would, in many ways, be a worthy winner. There is one problem though – Ronaldo's trophy count in 2013 stands at zero. In the league Real finished 15 points behind Barcelona; they were outclassed by Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League semi-finals and Ronaldo was sent off in the Spanish Cup final which was lost.

There is no question that as the final votes are cast Ronaldo is the best player in the world, but Franck Ribéry inspired Bayern Munich to three trophies. Those Madrid fans who chanted "Ronaldo Ballon d'Or" last weekend will blame Fifa if the Frenchman picks up the award. But it was Real Madrid assistant coach Zinedine Zidane who said recently: "I would give it to Franck because he was fundamental in Bayern winning the treble."