Gabriel Jesus picked the perfect moment to go goal-crazy and send Manchester City four points clear at the top. The Brazil international scored four – for only the second time in his five-year City career – as the Blues eased to a comfortable win over the relegation-haunted Hornets.
And with the strong possibility of him leaving the club emerging this week, with Arsenal believed to be at the forefront of clubs waiting to sign him – he either added a few million to his transfer fee and his wage expectation or will have made City think twice about letting him go!
Jesus has 93 goals in 230 games for City, not too shabby, but his propensity to miss big chances at important moments meant he was always in the shadow of Sergio Aguero. And with Erling Haaland a likely arrival this summer, along with Argentina whizz-kid Julian Alvarez, the squeeze is on for those front places and Jesus is a likely casualty.
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But he showed a lethality in front of goal that has often deserted him, and which caused his conversion to a right winger – he even scored confidently from the penalty spot to clinch his hat-trick, another issue that has dogged his City career. And by adding an assist for Rodri’s thunderous volley, he claimed an involvement in all five City goals.
Nerves are the norm at this stage of the season, even if the opposition look like relegation fodder, have lost all 14 meetings with City since 2008 by a total of 53 goals to six, and were on the end of an 8-0 mauling last time they visited. But those nerves were quickly dispelled as City forged ahead in the fourth minute. Oleksandr Zinchenko claimed a big assist, retrieving Joao Cancelo’s cross, which evaded everyone, and lashing the ball across the face of the six-yard box for Jesus to side-foot home.
The Ukraine international has played well when he has stepped up to the team this season, apart from, understandably, the period after his homeland was invaded by Russia, when he was a man with his mind on bigger things. And he showed the other side of his game when Watford threatened to draw level after Cancelo had been caught dallying and Emmanuel Dennis raced clear.
It looked like it was down to Ederson in a one-on-one to stop the Hornets striker, but Zinchenko sprinted back and put in a tackle that had to be perfectly timed – and was.
Ever since he was converted to left-back, Zinchenko has been excellent going forward but there have often been question marks over his defensive ability. That was a challenge of which any defender on the planet would have been proud.
The importance of his tackle was underlined as City went further ahead in the 23rd minute, Kevin De Bruyne curving in a wicked cross from the right, with such precision it was practically impossible for Jesus to miss with his header. That made it nine goals and five assists from De Bruyne in his last 11 home games, as if to emphasize his importance to this team.
The City fans settled and were thinking of inroads being made into Liverpool’s six-goal advantage in the goal difference column, which could prove crucial in a tight finish. But that ease disappeared as Dennis flipped a pass over a square City backline and Hassane Kamara raced through to fire past Ederson and send the disbelieving away fans wild. They had been singing songs of celebration when their team gained possession of the ball, so a goal was beyond their dreams.
City are experts at crushing such hope, and within six minutes it was 3-1, in bizarre circumstances. Inevitable it was the surging De Bruyne who created the space, but he went down heavily, and lay prone, under a challenge from Moussa Sissoko.
Some players urged Jesus, who recovered the ball on the right, to put it out of play to allow treatment to the stricken midfielder, but Jesus saw an opportunity. He picked out Rodri on the edge of the box, close to the wincing, prostrate figure of De Bruyne, and the Spain international took it on his chest and volleyed it beautifully into the far corner.
Any doubts were removed just 14 seconds into the second half as Jesus forced – and scored – a penalty. He ran hard to chase down Kamara and then sprinted past him, took it beyond goalkeeper Ben Foster and went down under his lunge.
A long VAR look decided against overturning what looked a clearly correct decision, and Jesus picked out the bottom corner for his hat-trick goal. Having got three, Jesus was not about to stop there. And when Raheem Sterling worked hard for possession in midfield and fed Jack Grealish, it was suddenly on.
Grealish gave it to Jesus, who played a one-two with De Bruyne and then swept it home for his fourth goal – only the second time he has managed that feat in City colours, the other being in the 9-0 Carabao Cup semi- final duffing of Burton Albion.
The three points were all that mattered, but City also took a big chunk out of Liverpool’s superior goal difference, reducing it to two ahead of their Merseyside derby clash with Everton tomorrow.
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