Arsenal have been missing a player like CSKA's Pontus Wernbloom
CSKA Moscow were winless in Rostov since 2006 but needed to take all three points on Sunday in order to stay in the title race. With the score at 1-1 after 75 minutes on a disastrous pitch, things didn't look promising, but Pontus Wernbloom had other plans. The Swede was in the right place at the right time again, and the curse was broken.
"I can always count on you, my friend," CSKA midfielder Bibars Natcho wrote on Instagram after the 2-1 win. Supporters have known that ever since Wernbloom made his debut for the club.
In February 2012, he put the CSKA shirt on for the first time on the biggest occasion imaginable: against Real Madrid in the Champions League. And, even though he is a Madridista, he duly scored an injury-time equaliser and instantly became a hero. Now, more than six years later, the Swede is a legend because he never gives up and always leads by example.
As CSKA prepare to face Arsenal in the Europa League quarterfinals on Thursday, one might say that Wernbloom is exactly the type of player the Gunners have been missing during the last decade.
Arsene Wenger's team are often accused of being too soft, whereas Wernbloom is tough as nails. His energy on the pitch and in the dressing room is boundless and he never shuts up. Fans and teammates adore him, while opponents hate to play against him because the Swede is known for extremely tough tackles. "Getting cards is my job as a defensive midfielder," he has said.
That is how Wernbloom understood football from the beginning. In his first seven matches for IFK Goteborg, when he was 19, he received four yellow cards and was sent off as well. He wasn't shy and made his voice heard. Not for nothing, the club singled him out as heir to the famous national team midfielder Hakan Mild, who retired in 2005.
It was an inspired choice, but there was a twist. In 2007, Wernbloom played a crucial role as Goteborg won the championship for the first time in 11 years. In a tight battle against Kalmar at the top, the team needed to win all their remaining games, and Wernbloom helped them to get all the points. He scored the winner in the derby at GAIS and then found the net on the final match day against Trelleborg.
The team needed him up front. Marcus Berg left for Groningen in the middle of the season, and coaches Stefan Rehn and Jonas Olsson decided to convert Wernbloom into a centre-forward so that he could use his strength and aerial prowess in the penalty area. Nicknamed "Dinosaur" in his early days at tiny Kongahalla for his size, the 6-foot-2 Wernbloom is not an easy man to mark.
"He proved himself as a player with more abilities that just kick people down. He was the leader of the pack," Goteborgs-Posten journalist Fredrik Janlind tells ESPN FC.
Those qualities convinced Louis van Gaal to cherry-pick the Swede for AZ Alkmaar in 2009. Two and a half years later, Wernbloom moved to CSKA Moscow and immediately made an impact. He was immense in central midfield when winning three championships, and regularly made important contributions up front too. The injury-time winner against Lokomotiv Moscow in 2012 springs to mind and, in May 2015, Wernbloom saved CSKA's season and ensured they would qualify for the Champions League by netting the late equaliser at Rostov on the last matchday.
That was no surprise, because Leonid Slutsky -- CSKA's coach until 2016 and Wernbloom's mentor -- liked to use the Swede in attack if the team needed a big man in the penalty area in the final minutes. Current coach, Viktor Goncharenko, went a few steps further, however.
With CSKA incapable of signing new players due to financial crisis, Goncharenko found himself without any decent strikers. The solution was to convert Wernbloom into a centre-forward this season, just like at Goteborg a decade ago. It seemed a bit desperate, but the result has been spectacular.
It all started when Wernbloom scored the winner at Basel in the Champions League and he then scored four goals, including the winner at Rubin Kazan, to put the team back on track.
Now CSKA are confident again, especially with Ahmed Musa back on loan after his disastrous spell at Leicester City, and that is why Lyon were conquered in the previous round in Europa League. CSKA lost 1-0 in Moscow but stunned the French side with quality attacking football in the return leg to win 3-2, with Wernbloom netting the crucial third goal.
The Swede willingly fills whatever role the coach asks him to. Against Red Star Belgrade, for example, he was used as a defender and put in a solid performance. At times, it looks like CSKA would love to have several Wernblooms in the squad and need to clone the Swede with injuries mounting. After all, Wernbloom himself is always fit. He only seems to miss games due to suspension -- though he has only been sent off three times in six years.
Brutal on the pitch, the Swede is an easy-going and humorous personality off it, though, and his wife, Nina, claims that he is very romantic and sensitive. In 2014, he complained that the Russian people never smile, and CSKA supporters replied with a brilliant #SmileForPontus Twitter campaign, sending him countless pictures of smiling faces.
His jokes and motivational skills are of huge importance to CSKA, and the national team could definitely use them as well. Sadly for Sweden, the 31-year-old decided to retire from international football after Euro 2016, deeply disappointed that he didn't play a single minute at the tournament.
The midfielder always felt underappreciated by the previous coach, Erik Hamren, and the recent media campaign to bring him back ahead of the World Cup has not succeeded in changing his mind. "That chapter has been closed," he said in February.
A slim hope remains, however, and the pressure could be heavier if Wernbloom stuns Arsenal. He is out of contract in the summer and the Gunners would be wise to take a close look at him. Wernbloom is not the new Patrick Vieira, but there are certain similarities and, wherever he plays, CSKA will fancy their chances at the Emirates Stadium.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.