Former Cottbus and 1860 Munich favourite Jiayi Shao played alongside Wolfsburg's Xizhe Zhang at Beiijing Guoan
Former Cottbus and 1860 Munich favourite Jiayi Shao played alongside Wolfsburg's Xizhe Zhang at Beiijing Guoan

Shao: 'Xizhe Zhang is similar to Kagawa'

Cologne - Former TSV 1860 Munich, Energie Cottbus and MSV Duisburg midfielder Jiayi Shao racked up more Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 appearances (168) than any other Chinese player during a nine-year stay in Europe's second-most populous nation, before returning to his homeland in 2012 to play alongside new VfL Wolfsburg recruit Xizhe Zhang at Beijing Guoan.

In this exclusive interview, the 34-year-old admits the initial East-West transition can be far from easy, but fully expects his ex-clubmate to rise to the challenge and deliver on his "great potential" in Germany's feverish top flight… Jiayi Shao, where are you right now?

Jiayi Shao: At the moment, I'm at home in Beijing. Xizhe Zhang's transfer to Wolfsburg is big news in Germany. Is it also making headlines in China?

Shao: Yes, it's the same in China - in the press, online - you can read about his transfer everywhere. Football fans here are absolutely thrilled. It's been a good long while since a Chinese player played for a top side in a big European league. It's massive news. What sort of person can the Bundesliga look forward to? Please tell us a bit about Xizhe Xhang's qualities...

Shao: He's a really good lad, and calm too. I know him well, we're colleagues and friends. He's got great strength of character and has always wanted to move to one of Europe's top leagues. And he likes nice cars (laughs). He's a young player, so that's completely normal. Did he ask you for any advice before making his decision?

Shao: He asked me about Germany and I only had good things to say to him, especially about the football. The Bundesliga's obviously on another level to the Chinese game, it's going to be a big leap. The standard is possibly the highest in the world. Wolfsburg director Klaus Allofs described Zhang as a young player with massive potential. What are his strengths?

Shao: I completely agree with Allofs. Xizhe has great potential. Dynamism, technical ability and intelligence - I think he has it all. Of course, he'll need time to settle in. What's his strongest position?

Shao: Xizhe likes to play in the centre best of all, but at the moment I think he's better on the left-hand side of attack. He's quick and has two good feet. He shoots well, links up well with his team-mates and is a great passer of the ball. He's dangerous in any attacking position. De Bruyne's pretty untouchable on Wolfsburg's left-hand side right now and the club also have plenty of other quality players in attack. Is there a place for Zhang in the team?

Shao: Yes, that's right. Wolfsburg have got plenty of top players like De Bruyne or Aaron Hunt, but Xizhe is a completely different player. He's less physical than De Bruyne, but he's quicker and in my opinion he's better technically. Xizhe is very, very slick. He might not be a candidate for the starting eleven at first, he'll need one or two months to train with the team and will have to prove his worth. But I believe in him - he's got what it takes to make the first team. Is Zhang similar to any other players in the Bundesliga?

Shao: I think he's most similar to Shinji Kagawa. He's small, nimble, doesn't only think about attacking but also works hard for the team. Xizhe's a real team player. It's in attack, though, that his understanding of the game really comes to the fore. Is he China's best player right now?

Shao: He's at least one of the best. Where does he stand in the national team at the moment?

Shao: At the moment, new head coach Alain Perrin tends to pick more physical players, so Xizhe doesn't really fit the system. But his time will come. Perrin has been full of praise for him. You moved to Germany at a similar age in 2002. What were your first impressions?

Shao: The language was the biggest hurdle. Fortunately I could speak a bit of English, but communicating with my colleagues still wasn't easy. The first year was really, really tough for me. Is Xizhe well-prepared in that respect?

Shao: As far as I know, he can already speak a bit of German. He started learning in China, that'll be a big help to him. What did you miss the most from your homeland when you were in Germany?

Shao: Definitely the family. Apart from that, everything else eventually turned out to be fine - even the food. Whether it was Chinese, Italian or German, my wife and kids always liked it. That's why we lived in Germany for nine years (laughs). Nowadays I miss the sausages and bread. In Beijing, we go especially to a German bakery. And to what extent did you have to adapt sport-wise?

Shao: For me, the tempo was the biggest adjustment, even in training. German football's really quick. It's really noticeable in the transition between defence and attack and vice versa. Are the sporting differences the main reason why all the other Chinese internationals play in their own league?

Shao: Across the board right now, we maybe don't have the players with the necessary quality, but there are definitely five young players who have it in them to play in Europe's top leagues. And a few more are coming through. What can Wolfsburg do to help Zhang settle in?

Shao: They must do everything to make sure Xizhe speaks German as quickly as possible - that's essential. Contact with the coach and players is also important. They need to communicate as much as possible. The club already have their own social media channel in Chinese and soon a Chinese version of the website will be up and running. How popular are VfL in China?

Shao: Volkswagen are really well known in China, everyone knows VW because of the cars, which is something the club have also profited from. Wolfsburg still don't have a particularly big following, but that'll definitely change with Xizhe's transfer. And how much of an interest in the Bundesliga is there in general?

Shao: The Bundesliga is really popular in China. There's a massive interest in the league.

Jiayi Shao was speaking to Felix Seaman-Höschele