Flashback: Wu Lei and Shanghai's continental bows
Kuala Lumpur: In just a few days, Shanghai SIPG will take to the AFC Champions League knockout rounds for the fourth successive year as the last 16 clash against Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors sees them maintain their perfect record of advancing from the group stage every time since debuting in 2016.
It has been a remarkable rise for a club that only arrived in China’s top flight in 2013 and have since gone on to to acquire talent of the calibre of Hulk and Oscar, the Brazilian duo who helped inspire them to their maiden Chinese Super League title in 2018 after three successive top-three finishes.
Arguably, however, no one has been more important in their surge to prominence than Wu Lei, who was the league’s top scorer last year before he signed for La Liga side Espanyol at the beginning of 2019 where he has since gone on to become the first player from his country to score in Spain’s top flight.
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The striker also finished as Shanghai’s top scorer in the 2015 domestic campaign to help them qualify for the AFC Champions League for the first time, and then he netted thrice in the 2016 group stage as he took to the Continental competition like a duck to water.
But what came next really made onlookers take note of Shanghai’s main marksman as the then 24-year-old followed up an away goal in a 2-1 defeat against FC Tokyo with a stoppage-time winner in China to ensure his side booked a date with Jeonbuk in the last eight.
“Actually I think in the first game against Tokyo maybe we were a little underprepared; we didn’t know what to expect from them,” admitted Wu, whose team had lost their opening group stage match to Melbourne Victory before winning four in a row to progress.
“But although the result in that first leg was disappointing, when we came back to Shanghai, we were still confident we would win the tie.
“After the game we were so excited. I think progressing to the next round [particularly following the surprise group stage elimination of both Guangzhou Evergrande and Jiangsu FC] was a great result for Chinese football.
“You could see from our reactions on the pitch what it meant. In the changing rooms afterwards, everybody was singing and dancing, it was crazy.”
Shanghai went on to hold Jeonbuk to a scoreless draw at home in the first leg of the quarter-final to mean they travelled to Korea Republic with real hope of advancing to the semi-finals.
But Wu and his side came crashing back down to earth in Jeonju, where, after the first half ended goalless, the K League team ran out 5-0 winners to eliminate Shanghai en route to lifting their second Continental crown.
The Chinese club returned a year later to reach the semi-finals before falling at the last 16 stage in 2018, exiting to the would-be champions (Urawa Red Diamonds and Kashima Antlers) on each occasion.
“We lost our first game [to Melbourne in 2016] but then won the next two home games, which helped us to understand the nature of the competition and believe that we belonged there,” said Wu of that debut campaign.
“The whole experience definitely helped us. Because it was our first time in the AFC Champions League, at first we just wanted to give a good performance.
“After that game against FC Tokyo, our focus then turned to just how far we can go.”
Although the game against Jeonbuk proved the end of the road for the debutants, they had more than proved they belonged alongside Asia’s elite.
Three years on, with the considerable help of the now departed Wu, Shanghai are truly established in the AFC Champions League and will consider themselves genuine title contenders.
Up against Jeonbuk for the first time since that harrowing defeat, the Round of 16 offers the chance to avenge the result and show just how far they’ve come.
Photo: Getty Images
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