'China's Maradona' carries nation's World Cup hopes

AFP
China's 2006 World Cup-winning Italian coach Marcello Lippi alluded to Wu's vital importance this week when he said that he was woefully short of out-and-out goal-scorers.
AFP
AFP

Shanghai SIPG's Wu Lei celebrates after scoring against Australia's Western Sydney Wanderers during their AFC Champions League group match in Shanghai in this February 28, 2017, file photo. Brazilian star Oscar has labelled Wu "the best Chinese player" and for most of his career he has carried the burden of being called "China's Maradona".

Brazilian star Oscar labelled him "the best Chinese player" and for most of his career he has carried the burden of being called "China's Maradona".

Wu Lei will need to show why on Thursday if China is to keep its wafer-thin World Cup 2018 hopes alive in a must-win encounter with Uzbekistan in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province.

Wu upstaged his 60-million euro (US$71.70 million) teammate Oscar in Shanghai SIPG's 4-0 mauling of Guangzhou Evergrande in their AFC Champions League quarterfinal first leg last week, scoring twice in three minutes and winning a penalty.

The 25-year-old's first goal was a classy solo effort that demonstrated why he does not look out of place alongside Oscar and Hulk at SIPG — and why he is central to China's footballing future.

China's 2006 World Cup-winning Italian coach Marcello Lippi alluded to Wu's vital importance this week when he said that he was woefully short of out-and-out goal-scorers.

"We don't have strikers. On paper I don't even have one striker, I have to make players from other positions play striker," said the 69-year-old Lippi.

Step up winger-cum-forward Wu, who last year was nominated for Asian Player of the Year.

Wu became the youngest Chinese professional when he made his debut at just 14. He has gone on to score consistently since, clocking a goal roughly every two games for his Shanghai club.

This season he has been even better, scoring 19 times and grabbing eight assists in 31 appearances.

He is not as prolific for his country — seven goals in 43 appearances — but is likely to be thrust farther forward by Lippi for Thursday's home clash with Uzbekistan because of the dearth of choices up front.

China must win in Wuhan and again next week in Qatar, and hope results elsewhere go its way, to grab a highly improbable third place in Group A and with it a playoff spot. It is currently bottom with one win from eight matches.

Wu is largely unknown in Europe, but when he was just 13 he won lofty comparisons with Argentina legend Diego Maradona from former China coach Xu Genbao.

Wu is known as "Goal King" in China.

He credits the Brazilian trio of Oscar, Hulk and Elkeson, as well as SIPG's former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur manager Andre Villas-Boas, with his spectacular club season.

"I feel I now shoulder a lot less pressure during games because opposing defenders tend to focus on our Brazilians instead and they can also create chances for me," he told the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in a recent interview.

"The coach is very strict and tough, but full of passion. No matter if it is training or during the match, he is always motivating the team to do better."

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