Glory, glory Hallelujah, é Gabriel Jesus. The busker outside the Maracanã knew his audience. For a while the walkway to the stadium was closed before Brazil’s Olympic final, the pre-match crowd backing up down the stairs as fans in yellow shirts sang along to the in-vogue dirge of the Rio games, a chant set to the tune of the US civil war song about John Brown’s body mouldering in his grave, and adapted here to take in the feats of a slightly-built 19-year-old utility attacker from the northern slums of São Paulo.
Six months on from the Rio Games Jesus would find himself looking a little cold and sad on breaks from hotel life in wintry Lancashire, a latecomer to the first raft of players to join Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Fast forward another three years, 38 goals, four trophies and two semi-serious injuries, and City’s roving centre-forward produced his best moment to date in a sky blue shirt on Wednesday night.
There were plenty of fine performance at the Bernabéu. Jesus was something else, laying on on a masterful display of deep attacking craft in a performance that might yet prove transformative, not just for himself but for the trajectory of this team. Glory indeed. But what next? Perhaps the answer lies in remembering how high his sights have always been set. Jesus is an unusual Brazilian in one sense: back home they actually do know how good he is.
Unlike other teenaged exiles he took some time to bloom before the inevitable European move, scoring 37 times in 22 games in the under-17 championships, getting himself sent off for fighting (a decent PR move in itself) and forming part of that gold-medal-winning front-line alongside Neymar and Luan, the importance of which you probably have to be Brazilian to really get.
Whereas in England there will still be a slight sense of shock at just how good he was in Madrid. There has been a lurking sense of something lightweight about City’s backup striker, a view founded in his stick-thin physique when he joined, and in the assumption that this is an essentially decorative footballer, a player made from sherbet and icing sugar.
Ask Sergio Ramos about that. From the opening minutes on Wednesday Jesus’s movement had something nightmarish about it. He kept pulling away into difficult spaces on the left, drawing Ramos across. Twice he bumped away the great defensive sneak, King Shithouse himself, with a shimmy of the hips.
His second-half goal was beautifully taken, the ball headed back across Thibaut Courtois in a gentle parabola from a strange hovering position in between the white shirts. But best of all, and a point of distinction when it comes to City and centre-forwards: he was simply relentless.
By the end of the night Jesus had racked up four shots at goal, two headers, three dribbles and 42 touches. He’d played at No 9, No 10, left winger and auxiliary central midfield. He’d also mustered two tackles and two interceptions in the middle of it all. By way of comparison, Sergio Agüero has played three Champions League games and hasn’t got past one of either.
There had been some surprise at Jesus even being in the starting XI. His presence was lumped in with Raheem Sterling’s seat on the bench and the selection of one-man wrestle-defence disaster zone Nicolás Otamendi as some kind of gamble. Again, this makes sense only if you haven’t really been watching.
Jesus may be slight, with an agreeably rat-packish air about him, a footballer who looks as though he might also have popped up playing backing clarinet on an early Chet Baker album. But besides that full range of attacking gears, he also has a harrying physical presence, an intensity that isn’t dissipated away from the comforts of the Etihad Stadium, and which speaks to how the Agüero-Jesus dynamic might work from here.
City have one significant task in their sights over the next three months: to win the Champions League, stick it to The Man, storm the Swiss bastille and all the rest of it.
Before Wednesday and the Bernabéu the clearest obstacle was their complete lack of traction in this kind of game. Away in Europe really has been another country. Defeats at Spurs, Liverpool, Barcelona, Monaco and Madrid have been accompanied by an alarming sense of meekness.
How to change this? What patterns to recalibrate? One thing does stand out.
In last season’s loss at Spurs Agüero started up front and made no tackles, no interceptions and no blocks. He won no headers. He touched the ball 18 times. In defeat at the Bernabéu in 2016 he drew a similar statistical blank.
Agüero is a supreme creative finisher. But the fact remains he hasn’t scored away from home against a top-class team in a meaningful competition since November 2017 and the third goal in a 4-2 defeat of Napoli. By contrast what Guardiola loves about Jesus is not just his movement and his presence, but the fact he plays on every pitch against every opponent as though this is all the same stage.
The goals have come too, with 13 in 18 appearances (11 starts) since the end of November. Jesus scores against the big teams too: Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal, Leicester, Madrid. In the past two years City have lost three times when he has started the game, and once when he’s made it to 70 minutes on the pitch. Part of the thinking behind his recruitment was that he would in time surpass Agüero and become City’s most effective striker.
Perhaps this has now happened.
It feels like a key subplot in the endgame to City’s season. There is still the second leg of this tie to survive. But Madrid are not what they were. The house of Zidane is a grand old creaking thing these days, a squad stuffed with ghosts and skeletons.
From there it would be two tricky steps to Istanbul and a shot at one of the more strangely gripping Champions League triumphs. Part of the thrill is that narrowing of focus. City were intensely disciplined in Madrid, at a stage when Guardiola has sometimes blinked. Jesus up front was key to this.
It could be key from here.