BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) — No goals in five matches of the 2018 World Cup. None in four matches of the 2019 Copa América. That haunted Gabriel Jesus, Brazil’s young number 9.
But the recent past was all forgotten Tuesday night when the 22-year-old scored one and set another against archrivals Argentina, leading his team into the South American cup final with a 2-0 win.
Brazil’s opponent in Sunday’s decider at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro will be underdogs Peru, who beat defending champions Chile 3-0 in Porto Alegre.
The last time Jesus had netted a goal for Brazil in an official match was in the 3-0 win against Chile in World Cup qualifiers. That was in October 2017, at a time many analysts wondered whether the striker could outshine Neymar in Russia last year.
After a massive flop in soccer’s top tournament, Jesus is finally showing some recovery with Brazil in Copa América.
“I don’t have words. I think all the matches are important, even when I don’t do well. Today I had in my head that I was going to score,” the striker said after the win at the Mineirão Stadium. “I am taking lessons from this. I came with a lot of confidence.”
Jesus’ return to the scoreboard for Brazil at 19 minutes started with a moment of magic by right-back Dani Alves, who flicked the ball over Marcos Acuña and gave it to Roberto Firmino on the right flank. The striker made a low cross, and all that the youngster had to do was to gently push it into the net.
A few days ago, in the goalless draw against Paraguay in the quarterfinals, Jesus squandered similar opportunity to the dismay of his Brazil teammates and fans.
“He is very persistent,” Firmino said. “That is a great quality for a top striker.”
The first goal was not all Jesus had to show against Argentina. At 71 minutes, when Lionel Messi and his team were close to an equalizer, the Brazilian striker headed the ball over Juan Foyth in his own half, ran past two Argentinians like a bulldozer and, with the cool in front of goalkeeper Franco Armani, allowed Firmino to push it to the empty goal.
The 56,000 fans applauded Jesus as the best player of the match.
It was quite different for the striker when the tournament began.
Brazil coach Tite substituted Jesus with Firmino in Brazil’s starting lineup for the opening match against Bolivia. The 3-0 win of the hosts against one of the weakest teams of the tournament did not satisfy fans or the coach.
Jesus started his comeback in the third match of group stage against Peru. His moves without the ball and his effectiveness in setting his teammates in the 5-0 victory convinced Tite that he deserved more, despite missing a penalty at the end of the match.
Once again a starter in the quarterfinals against Paraguay, Jesus did not score. But neither did his teammates, which sent the decision to penalties.
Instead of hiding after his Peru miss, Jesus took the decisive penalty and sent Brazil into the semifinals.
“In the match against Peru I didn’t take it like I usually do,” a calm Jesus said after the tense shootout. “Today I did.”
For the final, Jesus said the spirit shown against Argentina will remain.
“I am happy not only because of the goal, but also because of the match the team played,” he said.
Jesus won a gold medal with Brazil at the Rio Olympics in 2016 at the same Maracanã Stadium.
Winning the final or not, Jesus has already hinted at what will happen to his Argentinian Manchester City teammates Sergio Agüero and Nicolás Otamendi when they meet again.
“I won’t have pity,” Jesus jokingly said before the match in Belo Horizonte. “The one that loses a Brazil vs. Argentina has to be patient. The winner will poke fun.”
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports