Saturday 21 April 2018

Pep happy to put faith in Jesus

Liverpool’s big defenders will hold no fears for Gabriel Jesus at Anfield tonight. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Liverpool’s big defenders will hold no fears for Gabriel Jesus at Anfield tonight. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

James Ducker

Gabriel Jesus hardly gave the impression of a man burdened by pressure when Ederson and Fernandinho, his Brazil and Manchester City team-mates, marked the striker's 21st birthday yesterday by playfully splatting eggs on his head.

With Sergio Aguero ruled out of the first leg of City's eagerly-awaited Champions League quarter-final at Anfield, after failing to overcome a knee injury that has kept him out for more than three weeks, Jesus will be tasked with spearheading the attack against Liverpool in the Argentinian's absence.

It is a responsibility that might faze a lot of players of his age - but Jesus has been accustomed to addressing daunting challenges head on from his early teenage years.

He will certainly not underestimate quite what a cauldron Anfield can be on big European nights, but it is unlikely to be any more intimidating for the Brazilian than playing against grown men as a 13-year-old in the infamous Varzea in his home city of Sao Paulo.

The Varzea had a reputation for its brutality, street football played on dirt pitches by the marmanjo (hard men) more in keeping with slugfests from the 1970s than the purist theatre Anfield expects to lay witness to this evening.

One particular game has always stood out for Jesus and helps to explain why, despite his 5ft 9in frame, Liverpool's two towering centre-halves, Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren, will have a tough time trying to bully him.

Man City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images
Man City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Jesus was emerging as the star of his Clube Pequeninos side when they were paired against a notorious local team who had not been allowed to compete in the Varzea for a few years because of disgraceful past behaviour.

They were not the sort who needed any goading but that was precisely what Jesus did when, four minutes into the match, he dribbled past their best defender and scored.

"I remember them looking at me like, 'OK, kid, we're going to make your life hell'," Jesus told The Players' Tribune late last year.

"So they started beating me up every time I touched the ball. They got pretty crazy - like they were really coming after me to hurt me.

"This one short midfielder on their team was known to be a bully, and he kept saying, 'I'm going to break your legs if you try to dribble me again'."

It did not stop Jesus from inflicting more damage, with Pequeninos eventually winning on penalties, but the forward had to be shepherded through the parking lot by team-mates and then whisked home to prevent him from getting the beating that was repeatedly threatened.

With 45 goals in 59 games since Jesus made his City debut in January last year, Aguero will not be easily replaced and Pep Guardiola could be forgiven for cursing the timing of his absence.

But his faith in Jesus is absolute and the player's record and recent form leading the line inspires confidence.

Jesus has led the attack without Aguero in tandem on 20 occasions, 17 of which have ended in victory.

Injury has curtailed his involvement since the turn of the year, and he has scored just twice since November 18, but there have been signs in the past few weeks of him hitting his stride again.

He was excellent in the 2-0 win over Stoke City before the international break and similarly impressive in Saturday's 3-1 victory over Everton, when he scored.

Fearlessness

Along with Leroy Sane, 22, and Raheem Sterling, 23, Guardiola will be placing his faith firmly in the fearlessness of youth against Liverpool.

"Gabriel never played in the Champions League quarter-finals and it's the first time here (at Anfield) for him," the City manager (left) said.

"But why should I doubt them when we've done it on many stages quite well? If it does not go well, it will be a good lesson for the future.

"We are so happy with those three guys. You need experience to be better, you need to live these situations and they are young. I have no worries. I saw players who are 32 years old more scared than those three."

Liverpool remain the only team to beat City in the Premier League this season after Guardiola's side conceded three goals in nine minutes en route to an extraordinary 4-3 defeat at Anfield in January.

"Of course, I know their qualities, and I'm concerned of what they do," Guardiola said.

"I'm not so arrogant a person to think it doesn't matter what they do, we are good enough. No.

"But if you think we are going to defend for 90 minutes in our box and make one counter-attack, if you're talking about that - it's not going to happen.

"If we defend 90 minutes, it's because Liverpool are unstoppable but why should we change when it's going well so far, when we've had good results and they know they can do it.

"I know the way we play is perfect for Liverpool because they're a team that attack that space unlike any other team in the world, especially with Mo Salah, (Roberto) Firmino.

"But I feel the best way to try to win is what we have done here since we've been together." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Liverpool v Man City, Live, RTÉ 2 / BT Sport 2, 7.45

Telegraph.co.uk

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