Wu's La Liga adventure set to begin

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Wu Lei of China competes during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 group C match between China and the Philippines in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jan. 11, 2019. China won 3-0. (Xinhua/Li Gang)

Chinese hotshot Wu Lei has completed a dream move to La Liga club Espanyol.

The Barcelona-based team confirmed Wu's signing in a news post on its website on Monday evening, with Spanish sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo reporting that Wu is arriving on a three-year deal with an option for another year.

"Espanyol has had an in-depth look at Wu Lei for a long time, and his great performance has also attracted the attention of many English Premier league clubs," Espanyol said in a statement in Chinese.

Espanyol also said Wu will wear the No 24 jersey for his new team.

While his national teammates had returned home in time for Spring Festival following China's run to the Asian Cup quarterfinals, Sina Sports reported that Wu remained in the United Arab Emirates and was due in Spain on Monday to seal the switch.

The deal sees Wu become the first Chinese to sign for a Spanish topflight side on a permanent basis.

Zhang Chengdong, currently with Hebei China Fortune, became the first Chinese to play in La Liga in December 2015 when he suited up for Rayo Vallecano on loan from Beijing Guo'an.

Wu's historic move is a timely shot in the arm for Chinese soccer, with the forward long touted as capable of cutting it in one of Europe's major leagues.

Before the completion of Wu's transfer, Zhang Yuning was China's lone representative in Europe's elite divisions, although he has struggled for minutes at Dutch top-flight side Den Haag on loan from England's West Bromwich Albion.

The 27-year-old Wu netted 27 times to help Shanghai SIPG to its first Chinese Super League title last season and showed glimpses of his class at the Asian Cup, where he scored two goals in the 3-0 victory over the Philippines on Jan 11 to send China to the knockout stage.

If the move was designed to win Espanyol more Chinese fans, it seemed to be producing instant results.

"As a Barcelona fan for 30 years now, I'm officially announcing I'm switching my allegiance to Espanyol," read one Chinese post on social media.

While Wu's arrival certainly looks like a clever marketing tactic by Espanyol, there are concerns he might not see much playing time in Spain.

Espanyol is owned by Rastar Group, which is chaired by Chinese Chen Yansheng. Chen has said he wants the club to become a platform for Chinese players to develop their careers, so Wu could be assured of first-team action.

Many observers reckon Wu is well equipped to cope with the step up in class. Philippines manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, who coached Wu at SIPG, is convinced the wily attacker has got what it takes to succeed at a higher level.

"Wu Lei has been one of the best forwards in the Chinese Super League for years," Eriksson said after witnessing Wu's brace against the Philippines at the Asian Cup.

"He was also the CSL's player of the year last season. I saw how good he was when I coached Shanghai SIPG. He could play in European leagues."

Wu hinted a move to Europe could be in the cards when picking up his CSL player of the year award in Haikou, Hainan province, in November.

"If the right opportunity comes up, I will choose to play overseas," he said. "Of course, I have to consider many factors. Given my age, I'd have to be guaranteed playing time to join a foreign club.

"English Premier League games are always on TV in Shanghai and I've been watching Bundesliga since I was a kid. I really like the style of the two leagues and I'm confident that I can handle that pressure and fit into their pace.

"I'm good at adapting to a new environment and my next strength is seizing opportunities."

La Liga, where technical ability is more valued than pace and power, will likely suit Wu better than playing in England or Germany, with the striker's game based on his clever movement in and around the penalty area.

Facing world-class opponents such as Lionel Messi, Gareth Bale and Antoine Griezmann in La Liga will only improve Wu's game further, which would be good news for China's national team.

Marcello Lippi is leaving his post as China's head coach with the team ranked 76th in the FIFA rankings.

China averaged just over one goal per game under Lippi, with the Italian frequently complaining about his lack of firepower.

Whoever succeeds Lippi will certainly benefit from having a La Liga striker at his disposal.

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