Brazil's Jesus admits challenge against Firmino for No. 9

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LIVERPOOL, England (AP) — The most loved Brazilian at Anfield, especially after Philippe Coutinho left for Barcelona, is Roberto Firmino. And it may seem likely that a striker who netted 27 goals for Liverpool last season would be strongly favored to be Brazil's No. 9 at the World Cup. But that doesn't intimidate 21-year-old sensation Gabriel Jesus, who has held that shirt for two years now.

Before Sunday's friendly against Croatia, Jesus admitted he is facing competition from Firmino for a starting place in the team.

"This question of Firmino is good for me, for Brazil. Not only (to create competition) for the striker position, but all of them. He wants to play and that makes me want to improve too," Jesus said in a press conference on Saturday.

"Since I started as a professional at Palmeiras I always had to fight for my position. It was like that in 2015, when I became professional. Palmeiras had signed more than 15 players and I was scared. But then I took the challenge," the striker said. "That was good for me because I made the extra effort."

Jesus said he didn't expect to still be wearing Brazil's No. 9, which once belonged to Ronaldo. And promised to show he deserves to keep it.

"I didn't expect even to be a footballer, but I always dreamt of that. It is no different with wearing No. 9. Many players made history with Brazil wearing it, I want to follow their path," the Manchester City striker said.

Jesus scored seven goals and had five assists for Brazil in South American World Cup qualifiers. He also scored the team's only goal in the win at Germany in a friendly in March, seen as redemption for Brazilians after the 2014 World Cup semifinal 7-1 humiliation at home.

The 26-year-old Firmino, meanwhile, started only four games for his national team and scored only once in qualifiers. It was in April last year in a 6-0 hammering of Bolivia.

Despite his slow return after injury this year, Jesus counts on the support of most Brazil supporters to keep his starting place.

Jesus is known and loved at home after two great seasons and a national championship with local giants Palmeiras. Firmino only played for tiny Figueirense in 2010 before he moved to Germany.

Fans also like Jesus better for his open personality.

The youngster speaks his mind in interviews, cries when he gets emotional and does not deny his boyish love for candy. He is often at the Jardim Peri favela in Sao Paulo, where only four years ago he was painting the streets with Brazil World Cup themes.

That community loves him so much that, with the help of sponsors, they painted a 112-foot-tall mural with a depiction of the striker calling his mother in his famous goal celebration.

Firmino, for his part, is less exuberant before the cameras. Many Brazilian fans see him as too European, despite his humble beginnings in the impoverished northeast of the country.

But Jesus' apparent edge to start in Brazil's World Cup opener against Switzerland on June 17 does not make him waiver during training. His teammate Fernandinho said the fight for every position has been like a "cockfight."

The Manchester City striker also has the respect of coach Tite that extends beyond his playing position. During Sunday's clash he will be team captain, one of the youngest in Brazil's proud football history.

Tite likes to pass the captaincy armband around the team and said he will keep doing that at the World Cup in Russia.

"When I heard about the band I was very surprised," Jesus said. "But I know our coach wants us all to lead in Brazil. I was very surprised, but I accepted."

After Sunday's friendly Brazil will return to its London camp, where the team will stay until June 8.

Edited by Associated Press
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