When it comes to the FA Cup quarter-finals Chelsea against Manchester United is the tie of the round. Betfair sat down for a coffee at Stamford Bridge to hear how Paul Elliott sees it unfolding...
"Zlatan being suspended is huge. It turns a 50-50 game into Chelsea being huge favourites in my view. He’s been the nearest at Manchester United in terms of influence since Eric Cantona."
Hi Paul, you only played here at the end of your career but the club is special to you?
That's right, I was here when Glenn Hoddle arrived at the start of the 1990s which was the start of the modern club and I've been around a lot since. It gets under your skin.
Chelsea have rotated in some Cup ties, do you expect them to play the strongest side in this one?
I do. One of the key reasons Chelsea been so consistent is that they can prepare from week to week. They would sooner be in the Champions League, of course, because of the finance and prestige, but that's been one of the key elements. That continuity and consistency. I'd expect Conte to target this one because he has a chance to win not just the Premier League but the double. In contrast United have had to play a lot of games and have just had a long trip to Russia.
It's been a good season, to say the least.
I'd say it's been spectacular. I knew a lot about Antonio Conte before he came, not only for what he did with Italy at the Euros but also for his spell at Juventus where he won so much. To see the way he's brought that into English football, and the way he's conducted himself, has just been so impressive. When you look at the way he turned things round after the defeat by Arsenal, the opportunities given to Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, the way Eden Hazard has hit his levels again, how David Luiz has matured, the list seems endless and he's got just about everything right.
Weren't you once a bit of a critic of Luiz?
I was. I always thought there was a mistake in him, a lapse in concentration, that forwards could exploit. I was worried that having been at PSG where the league is not so competitive he might not have improved. But his concentration levels have been so good, and he's making good decisions all the time. He doesn't mind kicking it into Row Z every now and then. He's much better because he's matured. Centre halves hit their peak at 28 to 29, and he's at his peak.
It helps to have N'Golo Kante in front of him.
I remember somebody in the summer talking about Leicester's three-man midfield. It had Danny Drinkwater in the middle, with Kante on the left and Kante on the right! Some players can be good at a provincial club, but he's gone on to a higher level at a greater club and that tells you the measure of the player. He's the 21st century version of Claude Makelele.
He's more dynamic than Makelele though?
He plays more offensively but critically he's technically very proficient. I think he brings so much energy that you don't notice his passing quality, but it's actually the key. There's a bit of Bryan Robson, a bit of Roy Keane, a bit of everybody.
As a centre half you'd have loved to have him in front of you?
The protection - to have that shield and the kind of assurance it gives you. He breaks down so much of the play before it reaches you. They paid £32mllion but what's he worth now? You couldn't put a price on his head. He's been the heartbeat.
Would he be your choice of PFA Player of the year?
Yes. I know Zlatan Ibrahimovic has come in and been spectacular at 35 years of age, and his game has been so consistent, but I'd give it to Kante. He's your pro's pro.
On the subject of Zlatan how much will Manchester United miss him on Monday?
Him being suspended is huge. It turns a 50-50 game into Chelsea being huge favourites in my view. He's been the nearest at Manchester United in terms of influence since Eric Cantona. On the pitch, off the pitch, in the dressing groom, the respect from other players, the respect from the opposition, from the supporters. His presence alone is amazing and he will be sorely missed. You only had to see in Russia in the Europa League that he set up the all-important goal. United would have to be at their absolute best to get through Chelsea, and how do they do that without Zlatan?
Does it set the stage for Diego Costa to be the star?
Yes, he's a beast. He's like the Incredible Hulk, if you get him fired up he turns into a monster! Actually the way Conte dealt with that issue around Christmas, when there was the disruption in the dressing room and talk of a move to China, has been another measure of his management. He diffused the whole situation and the crisis passed straight away. In other clubs it would fester.
As in Arsenal and Alexis Sanchez?
Exactly. It gets fractured and ultimately the team aren't all pulling in the same direction. At Chelsea there is unbelievable, unshakeable team spirit and respect. The fact Costa is now looking at signing a new contract only tells you how quickly the situation turned from a negative to a positive.
What comes next?
I think Conte will be smart enough to take it to another level. One of the problems last season was Chelsea didn't improve the squad. Sir Alex Ferguson, always, on the back of success brought in at least two players better than he had. That keeps the squad energised and competitive. Players who have had success are looking over their shoulder and know they have to perform and I think you'll see Conte do the same thing this summer.
Enjoy the game - and as a thanks for your time we've a free £50 bet with any winnings to a favourite charity.
Great, the charity will be the South London Special League which does an amazing job providing sport for people with learning disabilities, and I'm a big boxing fan so I'll back Anthony Joshua to beat Wladimir Klitschko on points at [7.0].