MANCHESTER, England (AP) — The match ball clutched by Gabriel Jesus as he left Manchester City’s stadium following his first Premier League hat trick was covered in messages from teammates.
Among them was “Vamos Pele,” which — though clearly tongue in cheek — must have felt good for a native of Brazil.
Notwithstanding the four goals he scored in City’s thrashing of Watford on Saturday, prolific is hardly the word that has been associated with Jesus since his arrival in January 2017. Indeed, his weekend haul more than doubled the number of goals he had previously scored in the league this season.
Selfless, versatile and hard-working better describe the striker who City manager Pep Guardiola values so highly as both a squad player and a person, if not quite as a regular starter for the best team in England.
And his importance might grow this week in a way he can never have anticipated.
That’s because, on Tuesday, Jesus — not too long ago the starting center forward for Brazil — could even be used as a right back by City against Real Madrid for the first leg of the Champions League semifinals.
With Kyle Walker injured, Joao Cancelo suspended and another potential backup, center back John Stones, also nursing an injury, Guardiola is alarmingly short of options for a key position, given Real’s left winger is Vinícius Júnior — one of the most improved players in Europe this season.
Guardiola might have to get creative.
“If Gabriel had to play right back, he’d play right back,” he said.
That Jesus is actually being considered for that role is admirable, but also a concern. Would Real ever think of playing Karim Benzema as a right back? The same with Bayern Munich and its star striker, Robert Lewandowski?
Jesus clearly hasn’t developed into the goal-hungry striker City hoped it would be getting when he joined from Palmeiras more than five years ago. He started well at City, scoring seven goals in 11 games in an injury-affected second half of the 2017-18 season, but ultimately couldn’t dislodge Sergio Aguero from the typical first-choice lineup in the ensuing seasons.
It spoke volumes that when Aguero, City’s record scorer, left the club at the end of last season, Jesus didn't assume the role as the natural successor up front. Instead, there was interest by City in Tottenham’s Harry Kane last offseason — and the club has been heavily linked with a move for Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland this summer — while Guardiola said he would be using Jesus as a right-winger this season, despite City’s clear need for an out-and-out striker.
Despite appearing in 34 games in all competitions this season either from the start or off the bench, Jesus is not in City’s first-choice team, with Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling ahead of him as right-wing options. Yet Jesus is often called upon to play a specific role in big matches, with Guardiola occasionally preferring, for example, Jesus’ work rate to Mahrez’s dribbling and vision. Like when Jesus surprisingly started — and scored — against title rival Liverpool in the 2-2 draw in the league on April 10 and again against Jurgen Klopp’s team in the FA Cup the following weekend.
Tuesday might be another of those big occasions when Jesus is called upon to do a job for the team, albeit in the unfamiliar role of right back. After all, the Brazilian was deployed out of position on the left wing against Real when City traveled to the Santiago Bernabeu for the first leg of the Champions League semifinals in 2020. Jesus scored City’s equalizer in a 2-1 win, too.
Jesus’ future is up in the air, with reports over the weekend of a potential move away at the end of the season — with Arsenal among those linked.
Haaland’s arrival would add more competition in the attacking spots at City, dropping the 25-year-old Jesus further down the pecking order.
Jesus didn’t want to talk about his long-term future after the Watford game, though did speak about the expectations on him.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you don’t score goals and play well. But I am a striker, so it doesn’t matter if I play good, people are going to see the stats. I’m playing for a big club so everyone expect goals. I try. I work.”
For now, it’s all about the short term for Jesus as City fights to win the Champions League for the first time and the Premier League for the sixth time in 11 years.
And that short term could yet, at least on Tuesday, involve playing as a defender.
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Steve Douglas, The Associated Press