Everyone assumed that Real Madrid had momentarily fallen asleep and only awoke as they went spiralling out of Europe. Fernando Morientes wasn't in their plans at the beginning of the 2003/04 season, and after a loan move to Schalke fell through, the Spaniard eventually ended up at Monaco on loan.
He shone: nine Champions League goals, with two of them against his parent club in a shock quarter-final victory. The club returned home to Madrid to a fan base struck dumb: why had they not stipulated that Morientes couldn't play against them? How had they been so complacent as to essentially knock themselves out of Europe?
With hindsight, it appears that Madrid ended up doing something they can rarely be accused of: acting in the best interests of the game. The loan rule has its merits in football, but it is tilted in favour of the richest clubs and needs to be tweaked. Any rule that offers young footballers first-team football and simultaneously deters transfer spending by smaller clubs is to be encouraged, but this weekend hinted at how it tilts the competitive balance of the Premier League unfairly.
Chelsea have turned the stockpiling of young players into a tactic. Chelsea's hoovering up of talent is not some kind of benevolent act toward tens of young footballers with dreams (unless, perhaps, you're related to Eden Hazard) but is instead a ploy to navigate around the rules of Financial Fair Play. Club's expenditure cannot exceed €30 million of their income under UEFA's rules, but the expenditure counted does not include any transfer costs or wages paid to academy players. Any transfer fees received for their sales, however, are included, meaning Chelsea have found an effective and legal way around the rules.
The corollary of this is Chelsea's bloated squad, and as a result, they currently have 24 players out on loan. The majority of these are scattered across Europe with no real chance of playing for Chelsea, but a few have merely travelled down the Premier League table.
Kurt Zouma is at Stoke, Ruben Loftus-Cheek is on loan at Crystal Palace, and Tammy Abraham is now Swansea's best chance of scoring any goals. Izzy Brown and Casey Palmer are also on loan at Brighton and Huddersfield respectively. By no means are Chelsea the only top side supplying their Premier League rivals with players: Timothy Fosu-Mensah is on loan at Palace from Manchester United, while Joe Hart's deal with West Ham is temporary (for now at least). The rules stipulate that a player cannot play in a league game against their parent club, although can do so in a cup game providing they have not already played for their parent club in that competition.
But Chelsea's contribution is disproportionate, meaning that, when sanctioning these loan deals, they knew they would face a weaker version of Palace, Stoke, and Swansea than their rivals. These are marginal benefits, for sure, but they are benefits nonetheless.
Last weekend's 4-0 thumping of Stoke is a prime example. Kurt Zouma was deemed ineligible, which exacerbated an injury crisis for Mark Hughes: none of Kevin Wimmer, Geoff Cameron nor Ryan Shawcross were fit, and with Zouma out, meaning Mark Hughes had to stitch together an emergency back three of Martins-Indi, Glen Johnson, and Erik Pieters.
To suggest Stoke would have avoided defeat had Zouma been eligible is unfair: Chelsea were far too superior for Zouma alone to bridge the difference, but Saturday's game does accentuate the advantage Chelsea have in six Premier League games (against Stoke, Palace, and Swansea) over their rivals. Manchester United, for example, have already dropped points at Stoke - a game in which Zouma was outstanding.
Chelsea are not alone in this - Man City's games with West Ham will be slightly easier given the Hammers will have to play their second-choice goalkeeper - but they are the most effective in exploiting the rules. The rule is there for every club to exploit, yet few have the ability of the top clubs to stockpile players to be farmed out on loan.
Chelsea's advantage here is marginal, but it is an advantage gleaned through a rule that can be easily changed.