GABRIEL JESUS has never been more intent on proving a compliment wrong.
A fortnight ago the Manchester City star was dubbed the best reserve striker in the world, after a hat-trick in the Champions League romp in Zagreb.
For a young man determined to become one of Pep Guardiola’s go-to first-team regulars, the words of BT pundit Owen Hargreaves were hardly the most welcome.
In January it will be three years since Jesus made his City debut as a baby-faced 19-year-old who was a total unknown to English fans.
Yet with Sergio Aguero still banging in the goals, Jesus has always been seen as back-up and only occasional partner to the club’s record goalscorer.
There have been runs in the side, there have been runs when he has been banging them in for fun. But there have also been many frustrating days spent back on the bench.
Now, though, Jesus believes his time has come. Now, even with Aguero back after a month out with a thigh injury, he is raring to go every week.
Jesus, 22, a £28.6million buy from Palmeiras, said: “In the first season when I came, I played a lot. I came here to play, play, play.
“After that year sometimes it was him and not me. I know Sergio is a legend, top scorer of club, top man, top guy. I like him as a player and a person.
“I know Sergio can score every game because of his quality and experience — and every time he plays I want him to score, obviously, so I wait and I wait.
“I want to play every game but the reality is not like that. We have a lot of players, top players. I do try to enjoy it when I am on the pitch.
“But I know Sergio is not young any more like me, and now I think my time has come. This is my time.
“I just want to play football and to improve. That’s what makes me happy — that’s what I love.
“If I am not playing football I don’t know what I would do.
“It’s always difficult when you don’t play but I know I won’t be in every time, and I respect the manager’s decision and respect my friend Sergio because he’s a legend of the club.
“And I definitely don’t think about being the best in the world, I just want to play and score and then the rest comes anyway.”
That battle for selection will get even tougher now Aguero is back — but any rivalry between the two is certainly a friendly one. Indeed, no player has helped Jesus more.
He revealed: “Sergio has helped me so much, not just in the conversations we have but with his actions in training.
“When I am going to play he talks to me a lot about the game, about openings, about defenders and keepers. We have a very good relationship.”
With Aguero returning to action off the bench in Saturday’s win over Leicester, Jesus could not have picked a better time to end his Etihad scoring drought and will start against Wolves on Friday.
Incredibly, that strike was the first in front of his own fans since one against Schalke in March — and the first in the Premier League since a double in the 3-0 win over Wolves in January. In between, he did hit 21 for club and country at venues from Wembley to the Maracana.
Yet while it is a statistic that may have been on other minds, it was not on his.
He added: “Yes, of course I was very happy to score but because it was a big game and we had to win.
“It wasn’t something that I had been thinking about, though. It was just one of those things, a coincidence, and wasn’t on my mind.”
One thing that is, though, is the prospect of seeing his mother, Vera, and the rest of the family when they head for his south Manchester home en masse during the festive period.
There will be a houseful of friends and relations over the next month — and Jesus cannot wait.
He said: “Since I moved here they have come each Christmas and it helps me a lot.
“There will be my mum, two brothers, nephews, friends and girlfriend. My sister usually comes, too, but this year she can’t because she’s pregnant.
“I have a big family! They all stay at my house, it’s a really good atmosphere and I miss it a lot.
“My mum, Vera, comes for two or three months and although I have a Brazilian chef for when she isn’t here, maybe she will take over the cooking for a while!
“But I never feel alone. If she isn’t here, friends or brothers are — quite often there is someone with me.”
And the best Christmas present of all? Well, clearly that would be eating into that 11-point lead Liverpool have at the top.
Jesus knows it will be tough but he is equally aware it is not impossible.
He said: “Last season was so difficult and this time even more so.
“We have to try and win every one and it doesn’t just depend on us, but it can happen.”