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Wu reaping rewards of Euro adventure

China Daily | Updated: 2019-09-13 10:38
Team China's Wu Lei leaps for a header during Tuesday's World Cup qualifying victory over the Maldives. The Espanyol striker found the net once in China's 5-0 victory. [Photo/IC]

Chinese striker loving life in Spain as La Liga's Espanyol proves a perfect fit

Eyebrows were raised when Wu Lei traded Shanghai SIPG for Espanyol last January. However, after hitting the ground running and proving the doubters wrong, the China international is sure he made "the right choice".

"I am happy that the fans like me and the rest of the team has helped me to adapt and their friendship has helped me quickly fit in," Wu told Xinhua.

Wu revealed he accepted Espanyol's offer ahead of other European teams after being impressed by the Barcelona-based club's attention to detail, citing three years' worth of reports and technical analysis it had compiled on him.

He quickly repaid that faith, pitching in with important goals and assists last term to steer Espanyol out of the relegation mire and ultimately to a seventh-place finish, thereby booking a spot in the Europa League qualifiers.

Being the solitary Chinese player in the Spanish top flight means there is an intense spotlight on Wu's every move. The 27-year-old, however, insists he is relishing the extra attention.

"I'm not going to say there is no pressure, but I understand the desire of Chinese fans, as there is only one Chinese player in the top five leagues in Europe - and that's me," he said.

"In the past few years in China, since I began to play in the Super League and then with the national team, I have also had to cope with similar situations. I have to keep on learning and enjoying what I do.

"I am very grateful to the fans in China because they watch games I play in at two or three in the morning, so they are making a big effort.

"I also find it wonderful that a lot of people have bought the Espanyol shirt with my name and number on it. It's the best thing I've experienced since winning titles in China, so I want to do my best in La Liga for the fans."

Wu has had to contend with a summer of upheaval at Espanyol, with coach Rubi departing for Real Betis to be replaced by former 'B' team boss David Gallego, while the sale of key players Mario Hermoso (to Atletico Madrid) and Borja Iglesias (to Betis) appears to have left Espanyol short on quality.

The Blanquiazules (White and Blues) have collected just one point from their opening three La Liga matches, although after negotiating three qualifying ties around the continent, the Spanish club has at least secured a spot in the group stage of the Europa League.

"I speak a lot with the new coach in training," Wu said of Gallego. "He knows what I can do and he has brought in new tactics which I am working to take on board."

As for the club's Europa League adventure, during which it will face CSKA Moscow, Hungary's Ferencvaros and Bulgarian outfit Ludogorets in Group H, Wu is bracing himself for a hectic schedule.

"That will be a new challenge for us," he said. "We will have to play twice a week from September to December and that is an intense calendar that I have never experienced before, but fortunately we have enough players for the coach to be able to rotate the squad."

And all this while also suiting up for Team China as Marcello Lippi's side bids to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

Wu hit the scoresheet on the stroke of halftime as Lippi's squad got its campaign off to an encouraging start with a 5-0 thumping of the Maldives in Male on Tuesday night.

Wu linked well with recently naturalized Brazil-born forward Elkeson, who bagged a brace in his debut, suggesting the future at last looks brighter for Team China.

China will next host Guam on Oct 10 in Guangzhou and faces the Philippines away five days later. A tricky trip to Syria on Nov 11 is China's final World Cup qualifier of 2019, but racking up the air miles is of no concern to Wu.

"It's an honor and my duty to play for China in those games," he said.

After his playing days are over, Wu is considering a career in coaching or the administration side of the game.

He said: "I have learned a lot in Spain, not just in terms of technique and strategy, but about the overall administration of soccer and its cultural aspects."

Wu has urged other Chinese players to follow him to Europe.

"Japan and South Korea have a lot of players in Europe and even though some of them are playing in smaller leagues or not getting regular games, a lot of them are playing well," he said.


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