When the medics ran onto the pitch to tend to a stricken Gabriel Jesus at the Vitality Stadium in Bournemouth last week, Sergio Aguero proved he was one of the world’s great strikers: he sensed his opportunity.
So quick was he to jump off the bench and put on his jersey that it was is if he endeavoured to remind the world of his ability to peel off a defender in the box: he has a nose for a chance. And just as quickly as Jesus made the Manchester City striking berth his own, his injury seemed to have given the role back to Aguero. He now has the chance to snatch it back.
Two goals against Monaco in a frantic but ultimately successful Champions League last 16 home leg do quite a bit for his place, too, you would think.
One goal was a howler of a goalkeeping error, but the other was a volley and a thing of beauty: not only was Aguero the only man in the stadium who anticipated that the ball would arrive over the head of John Stones and onto his foot, but the technique and body shape were perfect, too. That volley was always destined for row z if there was any contact made at all. Aguero’s technique changed all of that.
In fact, the goal showed more than great technique. It showed a severe ruthless streak, too. Most players, when they see a volley like that, see an opportunity to smash a satisfying thump into the top corner. Aguero, however, just guided it into the net: he saw a space and he put it there, foregoing the natural urge to just thwack the thing.
Still, none of that matters to Pep Guardiola. Aguero remains City’s top scorer this season and has still found his position under threat. The manager is, surely, in no doubt as to Aguero’s sharpness, his focus or his ability to be ruthless in front of goal. That was never in question. And so scoring two goals – no matter how crucial or how wonderful – could hardly be seen as the chance to get his place back.
But Aguero may well have had that chance. And may well have grabbed it.
While onlookers may have been swept up in the game and the goals, it surely didn’t go unnoticed that Aguero pressed hard, made defensive contributions and even an assist: something he hasn’t done all season in the Premier League, with his only other assist coming in the 3-1 victory over Barcelona in November.
Indeed, some tackles made by Aguero last night were distinctly alien to anyone who has watched the Argentine since his arrival in England: they weren’t high up the pitch, not to set up attacking situations, but in his own half and when he had sensed – or possibly created – danger enough to sprint back and make a challenge.
That – and squaring the ball for Leroy Sane while on a hat trick himself to grab the goal to give City a vital two goal cushion – is what will impress Guardiola. Not the two goals themselves.
I’ve felt quite sorry for Aguero this season. Not only has he clearly tried to do what his coach asks – he mas made more sprints per game and covered more ground per game – but he’s done it all without complaining and still scoring goals. And yet it hasn’t been enough. Now that he’s back, he scores two vital goals, provides a vital assist and makes some vital defensive contributions, too. But he is hamstrung by his own success.
The problem he faces is that, in order to impress, he has to do something quite unnatural to his game. And the things that usually impress us about the former Atletico Madrid striker no longer do: ‘Sergio Aguero scores stunning volley to seal crucial victory for Manchester City’ doesn’t impress any more. That’s no longer news. That’s just what Aguero does. It can’t be nice when it’s the things you think are imperceptible that are all that really matter.
If he seized a chance last night, it’s because of his work rate and his contribution to the team, not just his goals and attacking performance. But if Aguero sniffed a chance that night in Bournemouth, it wasn’t a chance to score goals but a chance to fit into the team. And maybe Tuesday night in Manchester proved it.