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

Wu Lei will need to show why on Thursday if China are to keep their wafer-thin World Cup 2018 hopes alive in a must-win encounter.

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Brazilian star Oscar labelled Wu Lei (C) 'the best Chinese player' and for most of his career he has carried the burden of being called 'China's Maradona' play

Brazilian star Oscar labelled Wu Lei (C) 'the best Chinese player' and for most of his career he has carried the burden of being called 'China's Maradona'

(AFP/File)
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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 are to keep their wafer-thin World Cup 2018 hopes alive in a must-win encounter with Uzbekistan in Wuhan.

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

The 25-year-old's first was a classy solo effort that demonstrated why he does not look out of place alongside Oscar and Hulk at Shanghai 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 ever Chinese professional when at the age of 14. He has a ratio of roughly a goal every two games for his Shanghai club.

Mission improbable

Wu Lei (L) has a ratio of roughly a goal every two games for his Shanghai SIPG's club play

Wu Lei (L) has a ratio of roughly a goal every two games for his Shanghai SIPG's club

(AFP/File)

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

He is 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 on Thursday and again next week in Qatar, and hope results elsewhere go their way, to grab a highly improbable third-place in Group A and with it a play-off spot. They are currently bottom with one win from eight matches.

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

Wu credits the Brazilian trio of Oscar, Hulk and Elkeson, as well as Shanghai'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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