As Gabriel Jesus wept on the Selhurst Park turf on Sunday, an entire nation shared his pain. Manchester City's young star could be facing a lengthy injury lay-off after going down against Crystal Palace and, if the worst is confirmed, it would constitute a body blow to Brazil's hopes of regaining the World Cup title they all but consider their birthright.
Jesus went down early in the weekend's 0-0 draw, over-extending his knee and crying in anguish as he was left a crumpled heap on the floor. Bravely, he attempted to continue, but 20 minutes into the encounter it was clear he would play no further part in proceedings.
Tears streaming down his face, the forward was helped off. Sergio Aguero, rested as part of Pep Guardiola's meticulous rotation plans over this arduous festive period, was drafted in earlier than planned, while Jesus later left Selhurst Park on crutches and in evident discomfort. And while Pep tried to play down the severity of his charge's injury uncertainty reigned supreme in his post-match musings.
"Hopefully it will not be tough, maybe one month or two months out," the manager told BT Sport when asked of Jesus' injury. Maybe is the operative word in that sentence: the full extent of the issue will become clear in the coming days.
Key to Jesus' World Cup hopes, if a ligament tear is confirmed, will be discovering which muscle gave out in his knee in the final hours of 2017. If the 20-year-old has damaged a collateral or posterior ligament in the joint, he will indeed be looking at up to two months on the sidelines. If the anterior cruciate ligament has gone, he can kiss his hopes of making Russia goodbye.
Jesus' absence will logically be a big loss for City, fighting as they are on four fronts. But it is Brazil who would be far harder hit if he is forced out of the World Cup. In a team that is blessed with envious strength in depth across the field, the ex-Palmeiras wonderkid is the only player for whom the Selecao have no replacement.
The nation's deficiencies at centre-forward in recent years have been well-documented. The likes of Romario and Ronaldo were succeeded by inferior talents after the turn of the millennium, honest hard-workers like Julio Baptista, Hulk and Fred who were nevertheless a pale shadow of the superstars who wore the No. 9 before them.
Jesus' emergence, however, signalled a return to those glorious memories. Handed his full debut by Tite in the coach's first match back in 2016, the then-teenager smashed six goals in 10 World Cup qualifiers to ease Brazil into the finals, top-scoring for his country alongside Neymar and Paulinho despite having featured in just over half of the competition.
Ricardo Oliveira, a desperation pick during those dark final days of Tite's predecessor Dunga, was the only other centre-forward to find the net in qualifying. Such is Brazil's lack of depth in the position that 32-year-old Diego Souza, efficient enough for Sport Recife but hardly a name to hang one's World Cup hopes on, finished 2017 as Jesus' deputy: the inability of Gabriel Barbosa to step up his game like his namesake in Europe has left City's star as the only man for the job.
That is not to say Tite is bereft of options, of course. The coach experimented this year with Liverpool's Roberto Firmino as a false nine, to mixed results. The presence of Neymar, Paulinho, Philippe Coutinho and Willian in the squad, meanwhile, means that the Selecao are not entirely dependent on Jesus' goalscoring touch. But there is no doubt that if he receives the news Brazil most dread, their status as one of the favourites in Russia will look a lot less certain.
The images from Selhurst Park will also be greeted with concern across the border in Argentina. Sunday's sports supplement in Buenos Aires' La Nacion daily boasted Aguero on the front page, under the headline "Reborn". The ex-Atletico Madrid striker's reinvention under Pep over the course of 2017 has indeed been a joy to watch, in Argentina no less than in the blue half of Manchester.
A more complete player than before, Aguero has endured a rocky relationship with his national team and compatriots — "even the little kids insult me", he admitted earlier this year — but is now considered an undisputed pick at centre-forward. His renaissance, however, has been based on the minutes he does not play as much as those he does.
With Jesus alongside him Kun can afford to take a backseat, resting his legs and enjoying the benefits of the careful rotation policy referred to above. He has started just 14 of City's 21 games in the Premier League, and averages 75.2 minutes per game in the top flight and Champions League this season. Compare that to Aguero's great friend Lionel Messi, who has started all of Barcelona's 17 Liga clashes and averages a whopping 85 minutes per game on the field. There is no doubt that with a packed schedule and also taking into account his propensity for niggling muscle injuries, Guardiola has gone to great lengths to preserve his striker's physical integrity.
That rotation has made both Aguero and City a more fearsome prospect in 2017-18. Now, though, if Jesus is unable to pick up his share of the strain, the onus will be on the older member of the duo to up his own contribution and play through the fatigue. If that leads to injury woe in the final stages of the season Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli may be left cursing his luck right alongside Tite.
"He's a horse. He's a very strong animal... a hell of a kid." Early into his Brazil tenure Tite used those colourful terms to describe the teenager he first discovered on the opposite side of the field when Palmeiras took on his Corinthians team, and to whom he entrusted the future of his Selecao attack.
Tite will now join the rest of Brazil in hoping that the medical updates from the Etihad are as positive as possible — the fate of the nation's bid for a sixth World Cup crown, O Hexa, might just hang on it.
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