The hype around the Barcelona city derby this weekend seems to boil down to an Argentine superstar meeting a Chinese sensation.
Lionel Messi faces Wu Lei for the first time on Saturday when Barcelona takes on Espanyol.
The early success of Wu, only the second Chinese to make it in Spanish soccer, has raised anticipation of a Catalan derby which doesn’t usually stir much interest.
But since Wu made his debut for Espanyol in January, he has become such a hot topic back home that Chinese media have been highlighting this match as a “clash” between Messi and Wu.
Espanyol says about 200 Chinese journalists have requested accreditations to cover the match at Camp Nou Stadium.
The club is selling a special scarf for the game, with Wu’s name and image on it. It has been promoting the scarf with social media posts that include a photo of the player and writings in Chinese.
Some of the questions during the pre-game news conference were about Wu and his presence in Spanish soccer.
“Wu is a great player,” Espanyol forward Sergio Garcia said. “He showed his talent in his country and things are going well for him here. I hope he keeps improving and continues to show his quality and continues to help us.”
Espanyol, owned by a Chinese businessman, reportedly paid 2 million euros ($2.25 million) to sign Wu from Chinese club Shanghai SIPG in the winter transfer window. He had just scored twice in China’s Asian Cup campaign, which ended in elimination against Iran in the quarterfinals.
The 27-year-old Wu had already attracted the attention of some European clubs after becoming the Chinese Super League’s Golden Boot winner last season. He was the league’s top Chinese scorer for five straight seasons.
When Espanyol finally played him as a late substitute in a 3-1 win at Villarreal in January, more than 40 million television viewers in China saw it, according to the club.
Espanyol said its social media following has grown by more than half a million in China. It said Wu’s signing reached more than 350 million people in China through local media.
Wu already has one of the best-selling jerseys for Espanyol, and recently the club added a version of the jersey with the player’s name written in Chinese characters.
Wu scored his first goal in a win against Valladolid this month, and when he was substituted late, he was loudly cheered by the Espanyol crowd.
Wu has played in seven of Espanyol’s matches since he was signed, starting in the last five.
The other Chinese player in Spain’s first division was Zhang Chengdong, who played briefly for Rayo Vallecano in the 2015-16 season.
Espanyol has won only one of its last five matches and is 13th in the 20-team league standings. Perhaps more relevant to Saturday’s match, Espanyol has lost 11 straight to Barcelona at the Camp Nou.
Barcelona has won six straight matches in all competitions, and Messi again leads the season scoring list with 29, 11 more than his closest competitor, teammate Luis Suarez.
Messi did not play in Argentina’s friendly against Morocco this week because of a groin ailment, but has been training with Barcelona.