Eric Abidal made an emotional return on Tuesday as the Barcelona defender played for the first time since undergoing surgery on a liver tumor during a 1-1 Champions League draw against Real Madrid.
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The 31-year-old France international had been sidelined since mid-March and was a surprise inclusion in the squad for the second leg of the semifinal, which Barcelona won 3-1 overall.
Abidal received a loud ovation from the home fans when he replaced captain Carles Puyol during injury time at the end of the game. He was then was thrown into the air by his teammates after the final whistle.
”It’s such an important day for me, I worked a lot to get here,” Abidal said very coolly. ”They were very difficult weeks after the operation but these are things that happen in life.
”It was a very strong moment for me.”
Abidal has been a key player for Barcelona since joining from Lyon in 2007, helping the Catalan club to eight major trophies.
Coach Pep Guardiola applauded Abidal on his return, saying he brought the lanky fullback on to help deal with Madrid’s high balls.
”Abidal is really strong. He had a tumor in a very delicate place, part of his liver was extracted,” Guardiola said, before explaining the decision to play him. ”We discussed it with him and doctors said he was OK for 10-20 minutes. He’s a very beloved player by his teammates because he has a great heart.”
Abidal didn’t know if his quick return – he underwent surgery on March 17 – was a surprise or not. But getting back was tough both physically and mentally as the normally closed-off Frenchmen had to open up to a psychiatrist, who was part of his recovery program.
”I don’t know if it’s little time but the most important thing is that this was my obsession (to return),” Abidal said in a cool, composed tone.
”It’s important, like I say, to fight hard. Thanks to a lot of people and a lot of messages of support I’m here.”
Abidal now has a chance to win a second Champions League title with the Catalan team in a possible 2009 rematch against Manchester United, which leads Schalke 2-0 in the other semifinal.
Barcelona has four more games to give Abidal some playing time before the May 28 final as it closes in on its third straight league trophy.
AP Sports Writer John Leicester contributed to this report.