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Premier League's negative approach vs. Man City could leave City vulnerable in UCL

ESPN FC's Paul Mariner and Shaka Hislop have some choice words for Chelsea following their uninspired performance against Man City.

MANCHESTER, England -- You can only beat what is placed in front of you, good or bad, so nothing should be taken away from Manchester City's Premier League title triumph when the inevitable is confirmed in the coming weeks.

Having coasted -- and it was a coast -- to a 1-0 victory against defending champions Chelsea at the Etihad, Pep Guardiola's team are now just 22 points short of hitting the 100-point barrier this season with still 27 points to play for.

They are 18 points clear of the pack and could equal, or eclipse, the record Premier League winning margin -- 18 points -- set by Manchester United in 1999-2000.

Records are being broken by this City team and more are likely to fall before the season is done, but the ease of their procession to the championship may ultimately cost them when it comes to challenging for the biggest prize of all -- the UEFA Champions League.

Chelsea's unambitious and timid approach to this game was nothing new this season -- City have come up against many other teams who have tried, and failed, to smother Guardiola's team with ultra-defensive tactics.

Rafael Benitez attempted to halt the City juggernaut in December by surrendering possession in two-thirds of the pitch at St. James' Park, but Newcastle lost 1-0.

As a team battling against relegation, without the quality of players possessed by Chelsea, Newcastle's game plan might just have been understandable.

But when the reigning champions are not prepared to take City on, it is an indictment not only of them, but of the Premier League in general.

Conte attempted to explain his tactics away as a consequence of the absence of the unwell N'Golo Kante, but the Chelsea manager conceded that his team's performance was not up to requirements.

"At this moment, you have to accept every criticism, but I am not so stupid to play open against Manchester City and win 3-0," Conte said. "If you give City space behind us the game can finish not 1-0.

"It's not good enough, but this is the truth, I don't think this is because of the tactics.

"They are a really strong team with fantastic quality. We tried. But when you match quality with mentality, you become unstoppable.

"We conceded a goal after 30 seconds of the second half, and it's very difficult to come back from that, but don't forget we were missing N'Golo Kante, who is a crucial player for our balance."

Too many teams have been cowed by City this season, beaten before they even leave the tunnel before the game, and it is impossible to fathom why so many have tried to sit back and defend.

The only teams to have any kind of success against City this season have been those who have been prepared to fight fire with fire.

Pep Guardiola's Man City have not faced many teams willing to go toe to toe with them this season.

Liverpool are the only club to beat City in the Premier League this term, and they did so by attacking Guardiola's men from all angles.

Jurgen Klopp has the players to adopt that approach, but Bristol City also gave as good as they got in their Carabao Cup semifinal and Guardiola's players were made to fight for their place at Wembley.

Shakhtar Donetsk attacked City in both Champions League group games, losing at the Etihad but winning in Ukraine, while Napoli also tested City's jaw despite losing their two fixtures.

No team has yet reaped a dividend from attempting to shut up shop against City, though. They have all lost in the end.

Even Wigan, who had to defend for their lives for the majority of their shock FA Cup fifth-round win last month, tested City defensively before winning 1-0.

City have become accustomed to breaking opponents down, and they have grown used to having so much of the ball that they cannot do anything else other than prod and press until their opponents cave in.

When it comes to facing City, the vast majority of the Premier League now act like a child hiding behind the sofa while watching a horror film.

But what will happen when they face a team in the Champions League who will look City in the eye and take them on in every sense?

Liverpool did that at Anfield and won 4-3, with their three-pronged strike force of Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino tearing holes in City's back four and drawing mistakes from goalkeeper Ederson.

City struggled to plug the gaps and stem the tide, perhaps because they have lost the habit of having to focus as much on their defending as attacking play.

Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich will all attack City as Liverpool did, so the lack of real challenges in the Premier League might count against them.

They can be certain that the best in Europe will not play as meekly against City as the majority of the Premier League clubs if, or when, they have to lock horns in the Champions League.

So the ease of their Premier League success, and the failure of their domestic rivals to take them on, may ultimately hamper their hopes of glory in Europe.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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