City's Jesus continues to push Aguero, give Guardiola food for thought at striker

LONDON -- As Gabriel Jesus strolled into Selhurst Park ahead of Manchester City's routine 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace -- earbuds in, wash bag in hand -- he may have permitted himself a moment of nostalgia.

It was at this same ground, in January 2017, that he made his full City debut, laying on the first goal of a 3-0 victory in the FA Cup fourth round with a sublime through ball for Raheem Sterling and leaving his new manager Pep Guardiola purring over his aggression, movement and link-up play.

The future looked bright for the then 19-year-old, who had joined City in a £27 million transfer from Brazilian side Palmeiras. Even after breaking his foot in his fourth appearance, which kept him on the sidelines for two and a half months, he finished his first half-season in English football with an impressive return of seven goals in 11 appearances.

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Confronted by the challenge presented by his young, hungry rival, Sergio Aguero's days as City's undisputed first-choice striker looked numbered, but instead the Argentine knuckled down, addressed the areas of his game where Guardiola felt he was deficient and ended up strengthening his grip on a starting berth.

Jesus' career at the Etihad Stadium has not been without its glory moments -- not least the goal he scored in the St Mary's sunshine in May 2018 to take City to 100 points at the end of Guardiola's second season -- but the hierarchy has remained clear: Aguero one, Jesus two.

The Brazil striker expressed his frustration with the situation in a recent interview with Brazilian television station Esporte Interativo in which he spoke of the "hurt" he had felt at being left out for key fixtures last season. But his recent displays, culminating in City's win here at Palace, may have given Guardiola food for thought.

Just as in City's recent 3-1 win at Everton, Jesus was preferred to Aguero in the starting XI at Palace and just as at Goodison Park, he scored the opening goal. City had penned Palace inside their defensive third right from the off, but the visitors had nothing to show for their efforts until Bernardo Silva swung a cross into the box from the right flank in the 39th minute. Jesus stole in front of Joel Ward to meet the Portuguese's cross and divert the ball past Eagles goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey. Silva's cross flicked off Jesus' back, rather than his head, but he could not have placed his attempt more precisely, the ball bouncing off the left-hand post and into the net. City had the lead and Jesus had his 50th goal in City colours.

The 22-year-old also played a role in City's magnificent second goal just 93 seconds later, skidding a pass wide to Benjamin Mendy after Kevin De Bruyne had led a breakaway from the edge of his own box. Mendy left the ball to Sterling, whose delightfully inventive scooped pass was volleyed between Hennessey's legs by David Silva.

Jesus had looked on his game from the start, drawing an early booking for Luka Milivojevic with some silky footwork on City's left flank, and he played a prominent role in the visitors' ultimately fruitless attempts to put the game to bed in the second half. He teed up Sterling for a shot that grazed the left-hand upright and twice worked Hennessey, the second time having ignored a square pass to De Bruyne that would have presented the Belgian midfielder with one of the easiest goals of his career. It was the striker's only bum note on this night.

The display was in keeping with Jesus' recent outings with Brazil. He played his way into the starting XI in the Selecao's Copa America triumph this summer, scoring and creating goals in both the semi-final win over Aguero's Argentina and the 3-1 victory over Peru in the final (before being sent off for two bookable offences in the latter). He also started both of Brazil's friendly games in Singapore during the international break, notably setting up a goal for Roberto Firmino in a 1-1 draw with Senegal.

Guardiola ducked an invitation to say whether Jesus' performance against Palace had put Aguero's starting position in doubt, explaining that it was purely due to inactivity during the international break that the club's record goal scorer had watched the entirety of Saturday's game from the bench.

"We have two incredible strikers," Guardiola said. "I'm not going to talk about how important Sergio is for this club. He's so, so important. Gabriel came back from Brazil [duty], so he had rhythm. Sergio was 10 days without rhythm, in training all week. That's why today I decided [to pick Jesus]. But both are important. When Sergio plays, he plays at a good level and when Gabriel plays, he plays at a good level. After that, I will take a decision that depends on many, many things."

Aguero figures to come back into the team when City entertain Atalanta in the Champions League on Tuesday, but with goals on his past seven starts for the club, Jesus could not be doing much more to shake things up. And having scored on his last two trips to Selhurst Park, a ground where Aguero has never found the net in six Premier League appearances, he has shown that on at least on one precise patch of turf in the London Borough of Croydon, he is City's No. 1.