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Fit-again Jesus facing tough task to dislodge Agüero at City

The two strikers have both had their moments for the probable English champions. Now they're both available at once for the first time in more than a year.

Thursday 8 March, 2018
Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus, left, dribbles during City’s Champions League Round of 16 second leg match against FC Basel in Manchester, England on Wednesday.
Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus, left, dribbles during City’s Champions League Round of 16 second leg match against FC Basel in Manchester, England on Wednesday. Foto:AP Photo/Rui Vieira

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Gabriel Jesus tapped in an early goal, he closed down opposition defenders, he chased back and, perhaps most importantly of all, he played the full 90 minutes.

By the end of Manchester City's 2-1 loss to Basel in the Champions League on Wednesday, the Brazil striker was breathing hard — understandably so since it was his first start after a seven-week absence because of a knee injury.

Phase 2 of Jesus' return involves dislodging Sergio Agüero as City's starting striker for the season-defining games facing the team over the next two months. And that might be a problem.

Agüero has had his issues with City manager Pep Guardiola over the past 18 months, notably because of Guardiola's concerns over his work rate and link-up play, but Agüero's stock has never been higher under the Spanish coach than it is now.

"Since we were together here with Sergio," Guardiola said, "the last month and a half or two months is the best Sergio I have seen."

It's not just the sheer weight of goals scored by Agüero — 15 in 15 games — that has impressed Guardiola while Jesus has been out of action since Dec. 31.

It is his all-round game, too.

"He doesn't lose one ball," Guardiola said. "He makes a movement in behind. He is the first man to help."

It would, therefore, be a surprise if Agüero didn't start ahead of Jesus for City's crucial run of upcoming games. Already the League Cup champion, City are four wins away from capturing the Premier League — the title might even be clinched against Manchester United on April 7 — and are through to the Champions League quarterfinals despite Tuesday's second-leg slip-up against Basel.

City won the first leg 4-0 and therefore fielded a weakened team, hence Jesus' selection over the rested Agüero. He scored an 8th-minute tap-in for his first goal in 14 appearances for City, but his touch and hold-up play was sloppy at times.

Jesus might have to bide his time now, which would be frustrating for the Brazilian after his recent time out of the team with knee ligament damage and the fact that he will be looking to impress Brazil coach Tite with only three months to go before the World Cup in Russia.

"It's important he played 90 minutes," Guardiola said of Jesus. "He felt he needed rhythm — when you are out for a long time, you need rhythm to come back and for his confidence it will be good."

There's clearly been a shift in the battle for striker supremacy between Agüero and Jesus.

It was around this time last year that Guardiola wondered out loud to reporters what might have been for City had Jesus been fit and available all season.

Jesus had officially joined City from Palmeiras in January, therefore missing the first half of the season. Then, after a promising first few games in which he managed to quickly supplant Agüero, he broke his foot and was ruled out for three months.

"I always have that thing in my mind," Guardiola posed in April, when City was long out of the Premier League title race and guaranteed to finish the season without a trophy, "what would have happened if we'd had Gabriel Jesus all season?"

They were hardly words to boost Agüero's self-belief but the Argentina striker has won over Guardiola.

He has scored 30 goals in all competitions this season and is on course for his most prolific campaign yet for the club, beating last season's haul of 33 goals.

At 29, Agüero is fast becoming the all-round striker Guardiola craves. Speculation has constantly swirled around Agüero's future at City with Guardiola now in charge, but the rumours have been quiet of late.

Guardiola has the option of playing Jesus and Agüero together, like he did at the end of last season and at times in the opening months of this season. The imminent return of attacking left back Benjamin Mendy from a long-term injury might increase the possibility of a tactical change to a 3-5-2, enabling Guardiola to fit in both strikers.

For the moment, however, Agüero will likely stay as Guardiola's No. 1 striker, starting with the trip to Stoke in the league on Monday.

Jesus will have to sit and wait.

-TIMES/AP

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