Eric Abidal made his second appearance of the season for Barcelona Sunday, continuing his remarkable comeback from a liver transplant just a year ago.
Abidal's successful recovery is a feat that any fan can get behind, but less clear is how his return will alter the set-up for Vilanova's defense for the remainder of the campaign.
With injuries to Puyol and converted centre-half Mascherano wearing the Barca back line thin, one might be tempted to view Abidal's return as a bit of saving grace for the Blaugrana's season as they close in on the League/Champions League double.
Barca supporters know that Eric Abidal, at his best, is one of the finest centre-halfs the world over: strong, fast, physically dominant and precise in his tackling.
A speedy Abidal recovery would make it possible for Barcelona to cast aside so many of the doubts that have plagued Pique's central defense partner all season long. Puyol has been a step slow and never quite fit; Mascherano's lack of physical presence and impulsive tackling have caught him out on several occasions.
The other options at centre-half are even less ideal: Adriano has only played a handful of games there; Bartra is relatively untested at the highest level; Song has been a disappointment as a defensive convert; Busquets is the slowest of the lot and moving him sacrifices one of the Barca's key midfielders.
It would be quite an achievement—on top of what he's already accomplished—for Abidal to be fit enough to partner Pique in the Champions League, either for the semifinal or the final. Given the length of his absence and the seriousness of his illness, I don't quite see Vilanova putting such a massive responsibility on the Frenchman's shoulders so soon after his return to the team. And that's even assuming that he's completely ready for the physical toll of a 90-minute match.
More likely, Abidal will continue gaining minutes in the league from week to week but be held in reserve for the Champions League.
Who knows, though? Perhaps Vilanova has an ace up his sleeve, and Abidal has timed his return just right for Barcelona's crucial run in. Either way, he will certainly have an impact on the team's confidence and morale.
We'll get our first peek at an answer in a week's time!