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Gabriel Jesus on a road to redemption with Manchester City and Brazil

On Sunday afternoon at Selhurst Park, Gabriel Jesus was handed little more than a cameo.

But for him, 15 minutes was more than enough to show the captivating combination of grit and quality that have thrust him back into the limelight and made him so valuable to Manchester City in 2019.

It was not that every single one of his touches was technically perfect. The freekick that led to Crystal Palace’s solitary goal came after Jesus had given possession away cheaply near the halfway line.

But throughout that quarter of an hour, he fought for the ball incessantly and ran after every lost cause. It was the sort of show of desire and determination that has defined his year. And in the end, his resolve was rewarded.

As the game drifted into injury time, Manchester City’s number 33 ran onto Kevin de Bruyne’s pass, skipped past the lunging Luka Milivojevic, gave Vicente Guaita the eyes and tucked the ball in at the near post.

Guardiola jumped up and down on the touchline. In the neck-and-neck title race with Liverpool, he knew how vital it was to secure the three points in an away trip to a team that had beaten City at the Etihad Stadium in December.

It also underlined Jesus’ importance to the squad. He has not been his side’s first-choice striker at any point this season, but at a club that already has one trophy in the cabinet and is still in the chase for three more, it is necessary to have players capable of making an impact when called upon.

And in the young Brazilian, they have one of the most talented back-up strikers in world football.
That strike against Palace was his 21st for club and country in a campaign in which he has only started 20 games.

Admittedly, some of those efforts have come against inferior opposition in the League and FA Cups. But last weekend’s match-winner against Brighton single-handedly secured City a place in the final of the latter competition and there have now been seven goals in the Premier League.

Jesus

Given where he was psychologically last September and the personal challenges he has had to overcome, it is a highly impressive tally. It is easy to forget that he only turned 22 at the beginning of this month.

An incredible few months followed Jesus’ move to City in January 2017. For a while he was so potent and industrious that Sergio Agüero could not get a look in, leading some to question whether the Argentine was still wanted at City.

But 2018 was not kind to the young Brazilian – he was hit hard by the inevitable injuries and dips in form that all players suffer at some point in their career.

He spent eight weeks on the treatment table at the start of the year with a medial ligament problem and admitted after his comeback that he was playing with the fear of injury still in the back of his mind.

Then, at the World Cup, he failed to score a single goal in Brazil’s five games. He was the first first-choice Selecao striker not to score at the tournament since 1974 and with that came a barrage of intense criticism.

Tite, the manager, defended his player at every opportunity, but the drought affected Jesus deeply.
Visibly still hurting in a recent interview given to Brazilian television, he said: “I went to the World Cup with the number 9. Being the centre-forward and not scoring, it weighs on you. I’ll always be remembered for it. People will always remember Gabriel who didn’t score a goal at the World Cup.”

Then, on his return to Manchester, he found himself living alone, without the support of his mother, brothers and sister, to whom he is extremely close. He was a long way behind Aguero in the fight for a place in the City team and was dropped from the Brazil squad for the first post-Russia friendlies.
His confidence had hit rock bottom.

Shortly after his move to City, I spoke to the volunteers who run the first football club Jesus played for, a social project for kids from tough neighbourhoods in the northern suburbs of Sao Paulo.

Three things came across very clearly in the conversations; Jesus’ deep determination, people’s genuine affection for him and his emotional sensitivity. According to his first coach, he would be inconsolable in defeat and would quickly become frustrated by physically aggressive opponents.

The question, then, was how he would respond to these new challenges. All players go through difficult spells, but only the ones who can come out of such dips stronger remain at the very top for a long time.

Fortunately for City, Jesus has done exactly that.

Pep

After his family returned to Manchester to spend the demanding Christmas and New Year period at his house, he immediately looked happier. “My self-esteem came back a lot,” he said in that same television interview.

The next week he scored twice against Everton – once with his head and once with his left foot, a sign that he had been working on his weaknesses – and gave his first ever post-match interview in English.

His mother and siblings have since gone back to Brazil, but the added confidence has remained. He has returned to form for City and even scored twice in a recent international friendly against the Czech Republic in Prague.

Pep and Tite showed faith in their energetic front man. And now he is paying them back.

If City go on to win the quadruple this season, or even a treble or double, first-teamers like Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Aguero and Fernandinho will get the immediate plaudits – and deservedly so.
But the role played by Jesus in helping City compete consistently in all four competitions should not be underestimated.

He has shown the mental strength to come back from a series of personal and professional blows and the future looks bright once more.

Brazil’s home Copa America is coming up in June and it is the perfect chance for redemption.
Before that though, there is the small matter of winning the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup to deal with.

There are two huge games against Tottenham and a Manchester derby to come over the next week, and if City come out of them unscathed, you can be sure Jesus will have played a crucial part.

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