Standout Gabriel Jesus showing sends Pep Guardiola a message, sets Man City for Champions League success

MANCHESTER, England -- Pep Guardiola's fringe players couldn't get the job done against Liverpool in their FA Cup semifinal last weekend but at a crucial juncture in the season they showed up to give the Manchester City boss a timely boost.

Just 24 hours after Guardiola said his squad was "in trouble" because of a combination of injuries and fatigue, Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Fernandinho stepped out of the shadows to help City to a comfortable 5-1 win over Watford at the Etihad Stadium. With that, Man City firmly placed pressure back on Liverpool's shoulders in the race to win the Premier League and rested key players ahead of Real Madrid's Champions League visit to Manchester on Tuesday. Job done.

Jesus, who started a league game for just the third time in 2022, scored four times and made another for Rodri, making the case that Guardiola should think twice about leaving the Brazilian on the bench.

Zinchenko, making his fifth start in any competition since Boxing Day, created the first for Jesus and made a last-ditch tackle on Emmanuel Dennis at 1-0 that was so good it was worth a goal itself while Fernandinho, who hadn't started a league game since February, did what Fernandinho always does in midfield.

None of the three will be sure of a place for the Champions League semifinal first leg in three days' time, but even if they don't play they've already played their part.

While the trio were busy making sure City opened up a four-point gap at the top of the Premier League table, the likes of Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan were allowed a rare afternoon resting on the substitutes bench. Of those in the starting XI, Kevin De Bruyne was needed for less than an hour and Aymeric Laporte followed him off shortly afterwards.

Expect those usual starters to all be fresh and ready to face Real Madrid on Tuesday.

- O'Hanlon: PL players with most impact when on/off the pitch (E+)
- Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
- Don't have ESPN? Get instant access

"We started well from the first minute of the first half and second half," Guaridola said. "We didn't defend well, we were not aggressive enough. But the players up front, not just Gabriel for his incredible four goals, but all of them were brilliant.

"When we won against Brighton [on Wednesday] we were two points behind now we're four in front. Brighton was a final. We had another final today and we won it. Now we have an opportunity to play a final against Leeds.

"Nothing changes. We have to win all five games to be champions."

Jesus may feel he's done enough to start against Real Madrid and, if nothing else, he's given Guardiola something to think about.

The Brazilian has been the subject of speculation linking him with a move away from the Etihad in the summer -- possibly to Arsenal or Juventus -- and against Watford he did everything he could to add another zero onto any potential fee.

By the time 53 minutes were on the clock, he had scored four and assisted one and City were in cruise control at 5-1. Three were poachers' goals from a combined distance of about 15 yards -- one a header from a De Bruyne cross -- and the other was a penalty he won himself.

Who says City haven't had a striker this season?

Jesus' role in Rodri's goal will probably please Guardiola even more. Harrying and hassling in the corner, he won the ball back and clipped it to the edge of the area for the Spanish midfielder to smash into the net.

"Today was my day," said Jesus.

"We played very good today, we created a lot of chances, that's what we need to do. "We made passes and passes to create chances and try to score, and today we were very good on the finishing.

"It was my first hat trick in the Premier League. I've tried. Sometimes I've scored two then I've hit a post, the defender has blocked, or the keeper has saved, but today was my day."

Jesus has a knack for scoring important goals -- he's done it against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Paris Saint-Germain this season alone -- and scored home and away against Real Madrid when City dumped the Spanish giants out of the Champions League in the last-16 in 2020. His audition for a starting role on Tuesday could not have gone much better.

"If there's one person who deserves the best in life for him, his family and his friends, it's Gabriel," added Guardiola.

"All of us at the club, when he has one of these situations, we're happy for him because he's so generous. It doesn't matter what position he's going to play, we know how he fights for his mates. He's fantastic."

After a grueling season, City are potentially seven games away from a Premier League and Champions League double. But ahead of a huge European semifinal with Real Madrid, Guardiola was able to keep his foot down in the title race while also saving the legs of some important players.

It's a stage of the season when every little counts and a squad Guardiola suggested was running on fumes has been given some timely respite without veering off track.