5. Wu Lei (Last Year: 34)
Shanghai SIPG (CHN) / China / Attacking Midfield
Words by Martin Lowe
Playing alongside high impact players such as Hulk, Dario Conca and Elkeson last year, you’d be forgiven to see a regression in influence from Shanghai’s domestic diamond Wu Lei; but in fact his effect has been upped a notch or two. China’s most sought after player continued into 2016 where he had left off in 2015, finishing the year with a fourth consecutive Domestic Golden Boot and an AFC Player of the Year nomination.
While it feels like Wu has burst onto the scene recently, he has been playing at a consistently high level for quite a while. Considering he’s only 25, as said he’s been the top scoring Chinese player for the last four years, averaging just under 14 goals a season. This year in addition saw a greater influence in the national team, but also a long overdue debut in the Asian Champions League, where SIPG made it through to the quarter finals.
Wu made great strides in AFC’s top club competition, finishing the tournament’s joint highest domestic goalscorer in the final stages with 5 goals, but also notched a brace against Muangthong United in the tournament preliminaries. Back then, Wu was initially seen as a mere part of a devastating front four which included Conca, Elkeson and Asamoah Gyan, but by the end of the year, his place is the only one to remain guaranteed going into 2017, in no small part to his efficiency in the final third.
For the national team Wu’s impact in terms of goals has been much less than his club accomplishments. His only recorded effort was one of two that pushed China over the line in Round 2 to beat Qatar, but apart from that promising encounter fornational team and player 2016 was a frustrating affair. This was best illustrated in the reign of Gao Hongbo, who initially was given the job after successfully navigating their path past Qatar, but in the end was found wanting in Round 3.
Gao’s numerous tactical experiments, failed to get the best out of Wu, who was played in a number of different roles and on occasion benched, a strange decision given the dearth of talent and form in China’s attack at present. One match in particular, away in China, despite a late rally for an equaliser was a depressing watch. Wu was left totally isolated in a false 9 type of position, and when he forcibly created opportunities from scraps he was left alone to inspire brilliance out of nothing.
Going forward 2017 looks another year of opportunities for Wu. In a transfer window of upheaval, the likes of Oscar and Odil Akhmedov have arrived in Shanghai to supplement a talented attacking squad that has sights set on breaking the Guangzhou Evergrande stranglehold on the domestic league title and another lengthy ACL run. For the national team, while China’s days in Round 3 start to look numbered, the appointment of Marcello Lippi brings forward a new opportunity for Wu to best showcase his abilities.
Highlight of the Year – Hat-trick away against Guangzhou R&F
Mid-way through the year, Wu’s name was hot property inside and outside China;an impressive hat-trick in Guanzghou in July, only escalated his name further in Asian football circles. This hat-trick, Wu’s first for three years, showed a number of roles that he can take up in an attacking sense. For his first he inched round the back post to tap in with a typical poachers finish, his second he showed his pace to beat the opposing keeper to the ball before illustrating his technique to slot into the empty net, and for his third his nerves of steel, to score the equalising penalty in the 90th minute. The all round performer.