Gabriel Jesus should still start for Brazil despite case for Roberto Firmino
KAZAN, Russia -- Even by the standards of "Back Door," the Brazilian comic troupe whose satiric news read and sound like what would happen if Monty Python guys joined forces with The Onion, the joke sounded too mean.
Barely an hour after Brazil's 2-0 win over Mexico that marked the Selecao's safe passage to their seventh straight World Cup quarterfinals, the comedy site published a headline mocking a perceived uninspired performance by Gabriel Jesus. "Not knowing what to do at Russia 2018, Gabriel Jesus is now painting the 6-yard box yellow and green."
It mentioned specifically the widely told story of how the Manchester City forward followed the 2014 World Cup like just another fan back home, which included painting his street in greater Sao Paulo. As usual, the "Back Door" team picked an easy target: Jesus' role in the Selecao starting lineup has been under scrutiny since even before the World Cup started, but debate has intensified following four straight games without a goal by the 21-year-old in Russia.
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Statistically, it's the worst dry spell of a Brazilian No. 9 at a World Cup since Brazil's woeful 1966 campaign, in which Brazil went home after the group stage with two defeats. Center-forward Alcindo did not score any of the team's four goals in England. Since then, even the much-maligned Fred managed to squeeze in a brace four years ago against Cameroon.
It doesn't help that Jesus has seen only one of his eight shots go on target in all four matches so far. Meanwhile, Roberto Firmino is looming larger in his rearview mirror. The Liverpool striker scored Brazil's second goal against El Tri in Samara, and calls for his deployment in the starting XI are louder than ever.
It's a very different problem from the one that befell the Selecao at home in 2014.
For starters, Jesus is Brazil's second-highest scorer since Tite took over the national team in 2016, with only Neymar netting more in that span. Yet Pep Guardiola's protégé led the Selecao in World Cup qualifying, scoring seven goals, the same as Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez -- only Edinson Cavani managed more.
Critics in Brazil love to say that "a museum is where one should leave past glories," but the fact is that since Tite took over, Jesus has been in the team. In 21 games for the Selecao, he averaged almost 79 minutes per match, and to simply say he rowed the other way while Brazil cruised would be farcical.
It's interesting to look at his other numbers, too: According to Footstats, Jesus is leading all forwards with interceptions and steals at the World Cup. FIFA data also show that in the group game against Serbia, Jesus covered the biggest distance of any Brazil player, unusual for someone in that centre-forward role.
"He is like that fish that cleans the water so other fish can shine," says Cuca, a TV pundit who, as manager, won the 2016 Brazilian Championship with Palmeiras and relied heavily on Jesus' talents. It is difficult to argue the Man City man's case after Firmino's flying season for Liverpool, including his 10 goals in the UEFA Champions League. But Brazil legend Tostao, while openly expressing his admiration for the Kop hero, makes an interesting observation.
"I find Firmino's passing better, and he has been scoring, but Gabriel puts pressure on defenders and is very quick to infiltrate [opposing defences]. I have doubts [about whom to pick]."
Firmino also seems to laugh at suggestions that his lack of minutes could make the team wobble. In fact, his moves on the pitch suggest the opposite. That's without mentioning how he latched onto Neymar's pass against Mexico.
In 59 minutes so far, Firmino has created four goal opportunities. Jesu has nine in 365. These numbers are cruel, but Tite has vehemently defended Jesus' "dirty work" for the team, while other teammates have spoken about his "solidarity" on the pitch.
"[Jesus] helps the team, and against Mexico, he was important to help contain the opposition at a time other players were overloaded. Yes, it pains me to leave Firmino on the bench, but the opportunities for him could happen, either with Gabriel on the pitch or not," Tite said after the game in Samara. Over the past few days, the manager has even hinted that Jesus will start the game against Belgium, in which his nuisance for their big defenders could be one of the keys for Brazil if they are to reach the semifinals.
Asked about the dry spell in front of goal, Jesus tried to show that he wasn't too bothered. "I've enjoyed scoring goals ever since I was a little kid playing on Sunday leagues, but dry spells happen. It would be worse if I wasn't helping the team. I am calm about it and will be working hard and looking for this goal."
Unless he scores in the opening minutes against Belgium, Jesus will reach 300 minutes without scoring for Brazil. His last goal was on June 10, when the Selecao played a warm-up game against Austria in Vienna.
It would be looking worse if Neymar and Coutinho were not running the show and netting four of Brazil's seven goals so far. But on Friday in Kazan, Tite will need the Selecao to be firing on all cylinders. Therefore, Jesus, Brazil's youngest No. 9 in World Cup history, has a mountain to climb on Friday if he is to avoid making history for all the wrong reasons.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.