Chinese hotshot stars on La Liga’s restart as rumors of Premier League transfer swirl

Wu Lei showed why he has become a target for English Premier League high-fliers Wolves as he played a starring role in La Liga’s return to action over the weekend.

The Chinese striker tested positive for the novel coronavirus in March, but any fears he might not return to action in peak condition where quickly dispelled as he found the net in Espanyol’s 2-0 win over Alaves on Saturday at RCDE Stadium, where the stands were empty due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Since arriving at Espanyol in January 2019, Wu has looked right at home in La Liga. If reports are to be believed, he could be set for arguably another step up in class at Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Multiple outlets, including respected Spanish daily Marca, claim the English club has already reached out to Espanyol over a possible deal, although Tencent Sports reported Wu’s Barcelona-based employers have denied this.

A Marca report said Wu’s Espanyol contract expires in December, by which time the Chinese-owned team, which is currently three points from safety, could be playing in Spain’s second division.

Cashing in on Wu, who cost Espanyol just 2 million euros ($2.3 million) from Shanghai SIPG, could therefore be very tempting for the La Liga struggler.

As the only Chinese player plying his trade in a major European league, acquiring Wu would inevitably come with marketing benefits for Wolves, who have thrived under the ownership of Chinese conglomerate Fosun International to currently sit sixth in the EPL standings.

Wu, though, has proven that his value to a team extends way beyond the number of shirts he can shift, consistently putting in versatile and energetic performances in Spain-both in wide and central positions-that offer much more than goals.

His willingness to cover the hard yards was again in evidence against Alaves on Saturday when he harried goalkeeper Fernandes Pacheco into what would prove to be a pivotal 19th-minute mistake. Under pressure from Wu, Pacheco handled outside the box and was sent off.

Facing intense pressure from the host, substitute Alaves keeper Roberto Jimenez produced a string of fine saves to deny Wu the opener before Bernardo Espinosa put Espanyol in front in first-half injury time.

Two minutes after the restart, Wu, who earlier had a goal ruled out for handball, coolly slotted home after latching onto a through-ball to kill the game off.

“He was decisive,” Espanyol coach Abelardo Fernandez said of Wu, who now has eights goals across all competitions this season.

“He caused the sending-off and he scored the second goal. He did everything we asked him to do, he stretched their defense. He did his job perfectly.”

Wu’s strike capped a particularly impressive return for the 28-year-old, who was one of six Espanyol players and staff to be diagnosed with the coronavirus in March, when the Chinese Football Association said he had displayed “mild symptoms”.

Espanyol had looked doomed to relegation as it restarted the campaign six points from safety, but Wu’s fine performance has given it renewed hope of survival.

Espanyol, which was last relegated 26 years ago and has been in Spain’s top flight for 85 out of 89 seasons, faces a tough run-in with games against Real Madrid and Barcelona to come. Next up is a visit to Getafe on Tuesday.

Barca cruises

Meanwhile, Lionel Messi scored one goal and set up two more as Barcelona beat Real Mallorca 4-0 to extend its La Liga lead to five points on Saturday.

Despite not having played a match since early March, Messi was as dominant as ever and showed no signs of being slowed down by the right leg pain he complained of last week.

Messi and the other starters behaved as normal on the pitch, hugging after first-half goals by Arturo Vidal and Martin Braithwaite and not maintaining social-distancing recommendations during cooling breaks.

Like all games in Spain last weekend, the game was played without spectators as part of the league’s health protocols to limit contagion risks, but that did not stop one man from invading the pitch briefly in the second half.

In an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of matches, international TV viewers were shown a feed of the match with digital “fans” superimposed on the vacant stands and recorded cheers played. Spanish audiences could choose to watch the direct feed or the one with visual and sound effects.

The Spanish league became the third major European league to resume when Sevilla beat Real Betis on Thursday. Germany’s Bundesliga started last month. Italy resumed cup action on Friday. England’s Premier League gets underway this week. France went the other route and declared Ligue 1 over.

AP contributed to this story.

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