Millions of soccer fans across China launched to their feet and erupted in cheers after learning that Wu Lei had forced his way into Espanyol’s starting XI despite only arriving in La Liga – arguably the best league in the world – amid much fanfare barely a month ago.
By stepping out onto the pitch of Estadio de Mestalla to face Valencia on Sunday, the 27-year-old made history by becoming the first Chinese player to start a game in Spanish top flight.
The last time a Chinese footballer started in one of Europe’s top five leagues was 2,857 days ago as Hao Junmin featured for Schalke 04’s 1-0 loss to Kaiserslautern in Bundesliga on April 23, 2011. A new chapter has begun.
However, there was no fairytale goal for Wu as Rubi’s struggling team were held to an insipid goalless draw at Valencia. Marcelino’s hosts might have claimed more than a mere point given that they had created a host of chances, none was more appealing than the one that came just after the hour mark as Daniel Wass put the ball on a plate for Dani Parejo, but from five yards out, he managed to send his effort straight at a marvelous Diego Lopez.
The Espanyol goalkeeper’s flurry of saves will have cheered Chinese supporters from afar as much as they did Rubi on the sidelines. In that context, and considering the woodwork Kevin Gameiro hit in the first half and the close-range header passed up by Ezequiel Garay right after the interval, Espanyol’s point might actually be considered a bonus, especially for a side lacking genuine quality and devoid of ruthless attacking threat.
For outsiders, it was tempting to write it all off as one of those forgettable days but this was, in fact, a fractious and fiercely fought contest, and one which could be billed as the “Asian Derby,” with Singaporean businessman Peter Lim’s Valencia pitting against Chinese billionaire Chen Yansheng’s Espanyol.
Peter’s club boast South Korean teenage sensation Lee Kang-in, who has a stunning 91 million U.S. dollars buyout clause in his contract, while Chen’s outfit has Chinese Super League top scorer Wu Lei, who made his Espanyol debut in a 2-2 draw with Villareal a fortnight ago.
The 17-year-old Lee was confined to the bench on this occasion and it was an equally unfruitful outing for Wu, who received scant service upfront and had to drop deep to receive the ball.
The former Shanghai SIPG striker was close to profiting from a pinpoint Oscar Melendo delivery into the box before the break but his attempted stroked effort was smothered by the onrushing Garay. It was just about Wu’s best scoring opportunity and his quest to mark his first start with a goal came to a premature end when he was replaced by Alfa Semedo in the 72nd minute.
Valencia’s response was to introduce Santi Mina to inject some urgency into their attack and they laid siege to the Espanyol goal in the final stage of the game but Marcelino’s team lacked the guile to disrupt a resolute Espanyol side who never did enough to win this clash, though at least they were lucky enough not to lose it.
Next up for Espanyol, who have gone on a three-game unbeaten run since Wu’s arrival in the winter transfer window, are to host bottom-of-the-table Huesca on Friday. The Chinese star’s story is not over yet.