Wu Lei, the star of Chinese football, and Lionel Messi, the best player in the world, meet for the first time in Saturday afternoon’s Barcelona v Espanyol LaLiga Santander derby at the Camp Nou.
The game is set to be the biggest of new Espanyol forward Wu’s career, coming off the back of his impressive start to life in the Catalan capital. The China international’s performances so far for his new side suggest that the local rivals and current LaLiga leaders will have to watch him very carefully.
Messi of course needs no introduction to LaLiga fans worldwide, or especially to Espanyol supporters. The current Barcelona captain is the all-time record Catalan capital derby scorer with 20 goals, including two hat-tricks and a four goal ‘poker’ in 2011/12.
The Argentine’s two most recent derby goals came back in December, during the two teams’ first LaLiga meeting of 2018/19 at the RCDE Stadium. Barcelona won 4-0, with Ousmane Dembele and Luis Suarez also on the scoresheet.
Ernesto Valverde’s team have since maintained excellent form to move into a 10-point lead over current second placed side Atletico de Madrid in the LaLiga Santander table, keeping the blaugrana side on course for an eighth title in the last 11 campaigns.
Messi, 31, is also well on course for a record sixth career ‘pichichi’ prize as the top scorer in LaLiga Santander having scored 29 times in his first 26 games this season, building a huge lead of 11 goals over his teammate Suarez in second position.
December’s last meeting with Barça came at a bad time for Espanyol, who had been riding high in the LaLiga Santander standings through the autumn. Injuries and loss of form saw coach Rubi’s team win just one of 10 league games to drop towards the relegation battle, however results have swung back more positively in recent months.
A catalyst for this revival was Espanyol’s Chinese owners Rastar Managerial Group bringing Wu to the club in January. On debut at Villarreal the forward made an immediate impact off the bench, helping his team come from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. The 27-year old’s next game saw him fouled for a penalty in a 2-1 victory over Rayo Vallecano.
Such displays saw Wu quickly establish himself in the starting XI alongside ‘Los Pericos’ top scorer Borja Iglesias. His first LaLiga Santander goal came with a well-timed run behind the defence and neat finish to seal a 3-1 win at home to Real Valladolid. With this goal, the former Shanghai SIPG star became the first Chinese player to score in any of Europe’s top five leagues for 10 years.
Just one defeat in Wu’s first seven LaLiga games has propelled Espanyol back into the conversation for Europa League qualification next term. His impact at the RCDE Stadium has also made headlines back home, where he was already well known as the all-time top goalscorer in Chinese Super League history (102) and a scorer of 15 goals in 63 senior appearances for China. Visiting China recently, LaLiga president Javier Tebas spoke of how Wu’s exploits at Espanyol are already helping solidify links between football in the two countries.
The Chinese star’s next challenge, this weekend, is to improve his club’s record against Messi’s Barça. It is now a decade since Espanyol won at the Camp Nou: a 2-1 victory in February 2009. A winning ‘Catalan capital derby’ goal would ensure Wu’s eternal status as a Pericos hero.
Watch FC Barcelona vs RCD Espanyol this Sunday from 2:15AM AEDT on BeIN Sports.