Manchester United is facing a critical two weeks, and it starts with Sunday's showdown at Old Trafford against two-time defending English Premier League champion Chelsea. "We have to get our minds right for Sunday," United winger Ryan Giggs said. "We probably need a couple of days rest to get ourselves ready because it's a massive game."
The Red Devils are in the midst of the most important two weeks of their season, culminating with a December 6, 2006, match against Benfica for a place in the second round of the Champions League. On Tuesday, Man United lost 1-0 at Celtic, where Louis Saha had a 90th-minute penalty saved. A draw would have guaranteed United a place in the Champions League's knockout round.
Instead, the defeat has prompted self-doubt.
"I'm living a nightmare. I cannot believe what has happened," Saha said. "I just want to wake up from it. I have to survive from that. I've said I'm sorry to everyone, but a thousand sorrys won't change anything."
In an ugly repeat, it was Benfica last season that knocked United out of the first round of the Champions League. That cost United an estimated 15 million pounds ($29 million; euro22 million). Going out this season could cost twice or three times that much in gate receipts, sponsorship and TV revenue.
United needs some breathing space, but it won't get any. Despite also losing this week in the Champions League by 1-0 at Werder Bremen on Wednesday - Chelsea still advanced to the final 16. Striker Didier Drogba and midfielder Michael Ballack picked up injuries, but manager Jose Mourinho expects them to play on Sunday. "Ballack's injury is nothing special," Mourinho said. "It is only painful. Drogba's injury to his ankle is nothing serious." Chelsea is still the favorite to win the Champions League, and few would bet against the Blues claiming their third straight league title.
"I don't believe this defeat will have any baring on the game at Manchester United," Mourinho said. "Sunday is a different competition - the Premiership is a marathon. Now we're looking forward to it and it's a pity it's not tomorrow because we're ready to play."
Added Chelsea defender John Terry: "It's disappointing to lose a game going into a big one. It's the same for both of us now." The Premier League has quickly come down to only Man United and Chelsea. United has 34 points and Chelsea has 31. After that, it's Portsmouth with 23 points, and Arsenal and Aston Villa with 22 each. Liverpool, which is guaranteed of finishing first in its Champions League group, has only 18 points.
Sunday's match at Old Trafford overshadows the day's other two games: Newcastle vs. Portsmouth and Tottenham vs. Wigan. On Saturday, it's: Charlton vs. Everton; Aston Villa vs. Middlesbrough; Fulham vs. Reading; Liverpool vs. Manchester City; West Ham vs. Sheffield United; and Bolton vs. Arsenal. Arsenal, with a game in hand on the leaders, could make up some ground this weekend. The Gunners are coming off a 3-1 Champions League win over Hamburg.
The Gunners, runners-up last season in the Champions League, also face distractions. They need at least a draw in their December 6, 2006, game at FC Porto to reach the final 16.
They'll play that match without captain Theirry Henry, who's suspended after being booked at Hamburg.
"That's unfortunate, but we know that it will be a good game for us and I'm confident we can do it," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said.
In the League Championship, Cardiff and Preston lead with 36 points. The next four are Birmingham City with 34 points, Burnley and Derby with 31 and West Bromwich Albion with 29. On Friday, Wolverhampton hosts Sunderland.
On Saturday, it's: Barnsley vs. Ipswich; Burnley vs. Birmingham; Colchester vs. Southend; Derby vs. Leicester; Norwich vs. Hull; Plymouth vs. Leeds; Preston vs. Crystal Palace; Queens Park Rangers vs. Coventry; Sheffield Wednesday vs. Cardiff; Southend vs. Luton; and Stoke vs. West Brom.