Everywhere you look, there are pulsatingly brilliant stories in this season's Champions League quarterfinals.
Take Benfica, who recently moved on four Players who now feature for other clubs in the competition's last eight for over €350 million -- Joao Felix (€126m to Atletico Madrid), Enzo Fernandez (€121m to Chelsea), Ederson (€40m to Man City) and Ruben Dias (€68m) -- and who've not been in a Champions League semifinal for 33 years, yet here they are on the verge of reaching one if they can beat Inter Milan.
- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Or there's the fact that we have three Serie A clubs in the quarterfinals for the first time in 17 years; if you're old enough, you'll swoon at that idea. There was a time when Italian football had European competition under its thumb. This is a renaissance after some dark ages.
Among them, Napoli, who face Serie A rivals AC Milan. The fanatical supporters of Diego Maradona's former club have never, in Neapolitan history, seen their team go this far in the European Cup or Champions League. But, don't forget, nor had they seen Napoli become Italian champions since 1990: something which is about to be remedied and in dramatic style.
Your eye could easily be caught by Pep Guardiola taking his Manchester City project back to Bayern Munich, where he successfully coached on the domestic front but never won them the Champions League they craved. He won everything else while he was there, changed the ideology of the club, thrilled with his football -- yet left some die-hard traditionalists yearning for Bayern's old-school, arrogant "power-fussball" rather than anything too pretty and geometrical.
That the tie pits new Bayern coach Thomas Tuchel against Guardiola adds sauce to the stew. Friends, of a sort, almost perpetual rivals, whether at Borussia Dortmund and Bayern or then Chelsea and City, Tuchel is the bright pupil with whom Guardiola exchanged notes -- until the German stole his homework, reinvented himself as Guardiola-kryptonite and, famously, beat the Catalan in the 2021 Champions League final.
But forgive me for trying to persuade you that Real Madrid vs. Chelsea on Wednesday is every bit as compelling, every bit as idiosyncratic as any of the other three ties.
Chelsea are the club that have taken a look at Real Madrid president Florentino Perez's near quarter century of "Galactico" policy (sign the best Players, of any age; hire the best coaches; don't wait patiently for success before repeating the formula) and made a complete mess out of it.
It's as if their multinational owners -- Todd Boehly, Behdad Eghbali, Jose E. Feliciano and Mark Walter -- somehow got hold of Perez's blueprints that have brought Madrid 33 trophies since 2000 (including six Champions Leagues and five Club World Cup titles), spilled several glasses of cheap champagne on them, blasted the damp pages with a hairdryer, turned them upside down and read them backward.
Since Boehly & Co. took over at Chelsea in May last year, they have: spent over €600m on Players until the squad is bloated; employed three different managers; hired co-directors of football (who have a technical director over them); shed crucial experience in former executives Marina Granovskaia and Petr Cech; and sunk to 12 points above the Premier League's relegation zone.
Of their Galactico equivalents: Felix, Fernandez, Mykhailo Mudryk and Raheem Sterling -- not one is a centre-forward, something that Chelsea sorely lack and have done all season. Inexplicable.
This team, now managed by club-legend Frank Lampard again until the summer after the sacking of Graham Potter, have scored less than a goal per game in the Premier League. Only six teams have fewer.
What the Champions League draw has done, perhaps unfairly, is put a very harsh spotlight on the Chelsea project.
Madrid have only intermittently employed a director of football over the past 23 years, and on the rare occasions they did, one of them was Zinedine Zidane, who knows his stuff. Under no circumstances would Perez have undermined his own control of the club by hiring two joint directors of football with all the envy, power politics and backbiting that would inevitably cause.
Madrid's policy, at the beginning of their Galactico spend-big-to-sign-magnificent-quality era, yielded them Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo Nazario and David Beckham. All habitual winners and experienced Players who brought massive knowledge of handling pressure, of generating income for the club, and of being stars.
Los Blancos' policy, toward the latter end of Perez's reign, has been to invest in beating every other European rival to elite youth talents like Vinicius Jr. (€45m), Rodrygo (€45m), Fede Valverde (€6m), Eduardo Camavinga (€31m), Aurelien Tchouameni (€80m) and Eder Militao (€50m), all of whom signed in their teens or, at the latest, early 20s.
Those six Players -- who will play significant roles as Madrid WILL knock Chelsea out of their last remaining winnable competition this season and deny them the chance to play in the Champions League next year -- moved to Madrid for just over a third of what Boehly, Eghbali & Co. have spent since June.
There's crystal clear evidence of business and entrepreneurial brilliance among the owners who bought Chelsea. In their previous existences, that is. It's a reasonable deduction that, with time and a rapid assimilation of the brutal lessons they've been learning these past few months (and are likely to learn at the hands of the current Spanish, European and world champions), the Blues can not only steady this chaos but become competitive again.
Why Real Madrid vs. Chelsea will be a 'fascinating' UCL quarterfinal
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens preview the Champions League quarterfinal between Real Madrid and Chelsea.
What's bizarre is that while Boehly and Eghbali, in particular, spent so long jockeying to buy the club and harbouring aspirations to spend gigantic sums in harvesting some of the most brilliant young footballing talents, they seem not to have done a case study on Perez, Madrid and how to successfully adopt shock-and-awe tactics when it comes to adding an array of world-class talents and a brilliant coach to an already well-established squad.
There was so much to learn: good, bad, failed experiments, essential ground rules, successful philosophies, which, given that Boehly first tried to buy Chelsea some four years ago, could have been copied and pasted from their European rivals so that the eventual buyout and takeover didn't look like this soggy, badly executed, pale imitation of a Galactico project.
Am I being overly harsh to Chelsea? That's far from my intent. Within their vastly overloaded squad, there are some extremely talented, hungry and potentially important footballers.
However, they'll need to sign a top-class goalkeeper and add a high-scoring centre-forward (likely to be RB Leipzig's Christopher Nkunku for over €60m in the summer). But once an elite coach is hired (former Spain and Barcelona coach Luis Enrique Martinez would be an astute choice) and the squad sheds its deadwood, the club can most certainly restore credibility, threat and become an interesting project.
football is such an idiosyncratic sport that perhaps my suggestion this chaotic version of Chelsea can't turn out the right XI with the right tactics and elite performance mentality twice in six days will be rammed right back down my throat. I doubt it, but we shall see.
All the same, it remains extremely odd that given Real Madrid was a perfect case study for Chelsea's new owners from which to cut and paste, they instead chose the cardinal sin of reinventing the wheel and, in the early stages, building in a few punctures while attempting to do so.