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Spanish FA was right to fire Lopetegui


How Panama made World Cup dream a reality

 By Tim Vickery

Brazil starlet Gabriel Jesus poised to become one of Premier League's best

Back in May, Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus posted a fascinating series of photos on social media: one of which was an image of him three years earlier, participating in the deeply Brazilian ritual of painting and decorating his local streets in the build up to the 2014 World Cup.

At the time he was a promising player, full of goals in the youth ranks of Palmeiras, and may have been daydreaming of making his mark on the next version of the tournament in 2018. Now, after moving to Man City for £27 million in January to become a central part of their attacking lineup, that dream is within reach. It would be the golden pot at the end of the biggest and most pressurised season of his young career.

The youngster's achievements over the last two years have set the bar high. For Brazil, and on a weekly basis for City, goals and top quality performances are no longer a bonus or a promising sign for the future. That future has now arrived.

With five goals and some glorious assists in six World Cup qualifiers, he is Brazil's undisputed first-choice centre forward. And he goes into 2017-18 with many expecting him to become City's leading striker too, ahead of club legend Sergio Aguero, despite an injury-hit debut season in Manchester that still saw him net seven goals and four assists in his 10 Premier League games.

At the age of 20, Gabriel Jesus is going to have to grow up in the full glare of the spotlight.

It is hard to imagine Neymar painting his local streets -- he would probably be off with Justin Bieber. There are similarities between the two Brazilian attackers: both come from the wrong side of the tracks in the state of Sao Paulo, but there are also some key differences.

Gabriel Jesus could be this season's next big star.

Neymar was hot housed at Santos, identified as something special and linked with top European clubs from a very young age. Gabriel Jesus, meanwhile, grew up playing his football on the dirt track pitches of Jardim Peri, his home neighbourhood in the sprawling north of Sao Paulo. It is an old fashioned approach -- and one which seems to have stood in in good stead in terms of learning how to deal with rough treatment from the opposition.

Neymar, of course, has a well-publicised relationship with his father, who handles his business affairs in such a high profile and aggressive manner; Gabriel Jesus has a different tale to tell of his early years. His father walked out on the family when he was very young, leaving his mother to bring up four children on a cleaner's salary. Dona Vera is the true heroine of the story, keeping the kids on a tight leash -- "I was strict with them because I had to be," she has said.

Gabriel is a product of his family, with his mother and older brother Felipe watching over him in Manchester, but this contact is less business management and more a case of keeping him grounded.

In September 2016, the striker made a triumphant debut for a Brazil side that were then sitting in sixth place in the World Cup qualification table and under pressure. For 70 minutes away to Ecuador he made little impression and spent much of the time running into offside positions. But he tipped the balance, first using his pace to win a penalty, then scoring two superb goals in contrasting manners to seal a 3-0 win.

After the match, he said the first person he spoke to was his mother, and the first thing she did was complain about the number of times he had been caught offside. It would appear, then, that there is little danger of his newfound success going to his head.

Gabriel Jesus, Neymar & Gabriel Barbosa
Gabriel Jesus only made his senior Brazil debut last season after winning the Olympics.

That Ecuador match was testimony to the astonishing speed of his development. His senior debut for Palmeiras had only come in March 2015 -- with the fans, aware of his scoring record in the youth sides, baying for his introduction. But his career really took off a year later when he was moved from the wing, where he had to chase the forward runs of the opposing full-back, to the centre forward position, closer to the goal.

Initially, he performed badly up front as Brazil opened last year's Olympic campaign with two goalless draws against South Africa and Iraq in August, and was then switched back to the wing as Brazil marched their way to the gold medal on the back of Neymar's goals.

Senior Brazil boss Tite, then, made a bold call when handing him the centre forward's shirt for that match against Ecuador a month on. But it was a masterstroke.

Gabriel Jesus kept getting better, moving across the attacking line, putting the opponents under pressure, scoring some wonderful goals and coming up with a superb moment of play with a reverse ball that set up Neymar for a killer goal against Argentina in a 3-0 win in November.

The pass left Pablo Zabaleta and Nicolas Otamendi grasping at air, instantly winning him the respect of two Manchester City players who were soon to be his colleagues. And then, when he made his City debut against Tottenham, he made an instant impact in the air and with his left foot -- two areas that one of his youth coaches had highlighted for criticism -- almost scoring a last-gasp winner in a 2-2 draw only to be denied by the offside flag.

Once again, the striker's attachment to his family came to the fore, as he joked afterwards: "With no shadow of a doubt she [his mother] will complain about me being offside!" But the improvement in his game came from obsessive commitment to his profession.

"I'm always training, playing or even playing video games -- something connected with football," he told TV Globo. "And I've seen that [Manchester City manager] Pep Guardiola lives football 24 hours a day."

The striker was injured last season but has high hopes for the coming season.

Guardiola clearly saw enough to be enchanted with the all-round game of his new striker. In the words of one parody song made in Brazil (to the tune of 'Uptown Funk' by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars), Gabriel Jesus "put Aguero on the bench." And the decision to replace a man who has scored 122 goals in 181 games in the Premier League with a kid, certainty deserves some praise.

But the song also refers to the young striker's "cry baby face" and this psychological aspect will surely be the main area of his game to be tested in the coming season. Gabriel has the speed and technical attributes, and his background in dirt track football has left him able to take care of himself in physical confrontations. The one remaining doubt is over his emotional resilience.

He can take it badly when refereeing decisions go against him, and in the crunch game for Palmeiras in last year's Copa Libertadores away to Rosario Central of Argentina he lost his head after being bundled over, kicked out at his marker and got himself sent off.

So far everything has gone well for him for both Brazil and City. Bad times and dry spells will inevitable come but will he be able to respond quickly and bounce back? Going into the 2017-18 season, that looks like being the only question mark between Gabriel Jesus and world-class status.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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