Soccer-Big-spending Qataris eye more Asian glory

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By Michael Church

HONG KONG, March 3 (Reuters) - With the Asian Cup recently added to their trophy cabinet, Qatari soccer is preparing for an all-out assault on the Asian Champions League.

The continental club championship launches on Monday with Doha-based Al Duhail looking to become the first club from west Asia to claim the title since fellow Qataris Al Sadd in 2011.

Al Duhail have already made waves before a ball has been kicked.

Coached by Jose Mourinho's long-time assistant Rui Faria, Al Duhail have been flaunting their wealth.

Just days after signing Morocco international defender Mehdi Benatia from Juventus, Al Duhail splashed a record $40 million to capture highly-rated Japan international winger Shoya Nakajima from Portugal's Portimonense.

The fee paid for the 24-year-old eclipsed the $29 million paid by Parma to Roma for two-time Asian Player of the Year Hidetoshi Nakata in 2001, making Nakajima Japan's most expensive player.

A record-equalling nine wins in a row took Al Duhail to the verge of the 2018 semi-finals.

The squad featured five of the side that would go on to win the Asian Cup for Qatar in the United Arab Emirates, including top scorer Almoez Ali and influential midfielder Assim Madibo.

Al Duhail are joined by fellow Qataris Al Sadd, semi-finalists last year, and Al Rayyan.

Al Rayyan take on two-time winners Al Ittihad from Saudi Arabia on Monday in group A while Al Sadd, impressive last season with Xavi Hernandez at the heart of midfield, face another Saudi side, Al Ahli, in group D on Tuesday.

Al Duhail, meanwhile, begin their campaign against Iran's Esteghlal on Tuesday in group C, which also features former winners Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal.

Japan's reigning champions Kashima Antlers, who won last year's two-legged decider against Iranian side Persepolis 2-0, begin their defence against Malaysian debutants Johor Darul Ta'zim on Tuesday.

Urawa Red Diamonds, who won the title in 2017, return after missing the 2018 edition and take on Thailand's Buriram United in group G, which also includes two-time winners Jeonbuk Motors from South Korea and China's resurgent Beijing Guoan.

Roger Schmidt's Beijing will be one of four teams looking to take the title back to China for the first time since the second of Guangzhou Evergrande's two triumphs in 2015.

Evergrande are also represented, along with big-spending domestic league winners Shanghai SIPG and Shandong Luneng in the 32-team tournament, which runs until mid-November.

(Editing by Ian Ransom)

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