Wu lease of life for Espanyol

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Wu Lei enjoyed a flying start to life in Spain's second division on Saturday after his first-half strike helped Espanyol to a 3-0 opening victory over Albacete.

Wu Lei wheels away after scoring Espanyol's second goal in a 3-0 Segunda Division win over Albacete in Barcelona on Saturday. The China international is hoping to help his team back to La Liga at the first attempt this season. XINHUA

Having surprised many observers by sticking with the Barcelona-based team following its relegation from La Liga last term, Wu showed early indications that decision was a shrewd one by launching the club's promotion bid in convincing style.

Typically, however, Wu was keeping his feet on the ground after the victory.

"I'm satisfied with the result, and the whole match was under our control. However we are clear that the second division is not that easy. It will be a long journey this season if we want to return back to La Liga," said the China international, who was given the all-clear from doctors in May after he and his wife tested positive for COVID-19 in March.

"An opening victory is important for all of us and is a great boost for our confidence. We hope we can win as many matches as we can in the early stage of the season."

Espanyol head coach Vicente Moreno echoed those sentiments, cautioning for a tough campaign ahead.

Wu had been China's sole representative on the pitch in a major European league after arriving at Espanyol from Shanghai SIPG in January 2019. So, the Spanish club's relegation was tough to swallow for the forward's fans back home, many of whom had urged him to leave for pastures new.

However, amid speculation linking him with clubs in England, Germany and Turkey, Wu remained adamant throughout the summer that he would stay the course with Espanyol and try to help it bounce back from its first relegation since 1993.

Espanyol finished seventh in Wu's impressive debut campaign in 2019.But the departure of head coach Rubi to Real Betis in June last year kick-started a downward spiral for the team. Before Moreno was appointed, Wu had worked with five head coaches at Espanyol, with the constant changes not aiding the team's fight for top-flight survival.

Former Team China and Manchester United player Dong Fangzhuo was among those who reckoned Wu needed a change of scenery this summer. "No matter if he goes to the English Premier League or not, I think leaving Espanyol will benefit Wu… Confidence is what Espanyol cannot offer him now," said Dong in May.

Saturday's goal may have changed Dong's mind.

Video highlights of Wu's performance against Albacete became trending news on Chinese social media, with topics related to Espanyol's victory viewed over six million times on Weibo within half a day.

Three posts on La Liga's official Weibo account acknowledged Wu's fine start, while Chinese media were also cheered by the forward's second-division debut.

"With a new coach and new players, Wu and his teammates have every reason to be confident in the second division," read a commentary on Soccer News.

"After all, among all the teams in the second division, Espanyol is one of the 'super powers', with expensive players, a big budget and rich experience in La Liga. As long as they play the right way, their second-division days are numbered."

On Saturday's evidence, Espanyol would certainly appear to be a strong candidate for promotion. Wu also seems a lot more at ease with Moreno's style of play than the litany of coaches that preceded the 45-year-old.

"I'm very happy to be in the team. I especially feel very comfortable in the team's tactical system," said Wu after Saturday's triumph. "I show my characteristics and play in my own way. I feel good here."

Posts on his personal blog last week, reinforced the sense that Wu is happy with life in general in Barcelona.

"I thought the major reason why we crashed at the end of last season was the loss of confidence. So this term, mentality will be very important for us," Wu wrote.

"The head coach also stressed this point. Rival teams and outsiders all believe we are in a very advantageous position in the second division. So we need to be extra calm to play this season.

"I've been in Spain for 20 months. I'm fitting into life here much better on and off the pitch. After the failure of last season, now we all know what we can do better to improve. Now, let's start a new journey."

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