(Reuters) – Stefano Pioli says AC Milan are building towards returning to the top of European football ahead of a Europa League tie against Manchester United on Thursday.
The last-16 clash marks a meeting of two of Europe’s most decorated sides, who have won 10 European Cup/Champions League titles between them.
But Pioli said that the Europa League is not the level that the Rossoneri want to be competing at in the future ahead of his side’s trip to Old Trafford.
“(Milan director) Paolo Maldini said something relevant not long ago, that to become a pretender to the crown in the Champions League you need to play in that competition for several years,” the coach told a news conference.
“That’s the level we’re aspiring to and we’ve had some good performances and results. We’ve still got a long way to go but can go forward with conviction and enthusiasm.”
Both sides are currently second place in their respective leagues, with Milan trailing Serie A leaders Inter by six points and United sitting 11 points behind Manchester City in the Premier League.
The winner of this tie will be considered among the favourites to win the competition given their domestic form.
“I don’t think it’s an ‘early final’ because a lot of good teams are left in the competition,” Pioli said.
“But it is a prestigious game between two teams with a lot of history in Europe. We want to work well and get back to winning at the highest level.”
Milan travel to Manchester without important players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Hakan Calhanoglu, Ismael Bennacer, Theo Hernandez, Mario Mandzukic and Ante Rebic, and Pioli was asked if a draw would be a good first leg result.
“We have to play each game on its merits,” he said.
“We must have great conviction, while respecting a team coming down from the Champions League. Getting a positive result tomorrow would give us an important boost ahead of the return leg.”
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Christian Radnedge)