ROME (Reuters) - Stefano Pioli wants AC Milan to be the surprise of the season in the Europa League as he looks to put a shock Serie A defeat behind him against Red Star Belgrade on Thursday.
The Italian club had to come through three qualifying rounds to reach the group stage, including a remarkable 9-8 penalty shootout win over Portuguese side Rio Ave in the playoffs.
Milan went on to top Group H ahead of Lille, Sparta Prague and Celtic, and Pioli left no doubt about his side’s aspirations.
"We’re happy to be back playing in Europe again," he told a news conference.
"The team must have the same desire to progress that we saw against Rio Ave – we want to be the surprise in the Europa League."
Pioli has led Milan to an impressive campaign on the domestic front too, but a 2-0 Serie A defeat to midtable Spezia on Saturday saw them drop to second place in the standings, behind rivals Inter Milan.
"We need to look ahead, like we’ve always done," he said.
"In sport it’s not what you’ve done that counts, it’s what you do next.
"We want to get off to a good start, even if we know that this tie lasts 180 minutes. We’re playing against a team that is dominating its league.
"It would’ve been more worrying if we had lost while playing like Milan. But on Saturday we didn’t play like Milan. Now we have to look ahead."
The midweek trip to Belgrade, to face a Red Star side that is nine points clear on top of the Serbian SuperLiga, comes three days before a momentous Milan derby clash with Inter in Serie A.
One point separates the top two sides ahead of the game, but Pioli insists the thought of his side’s biggest match of the season being just around the corner will not be a distraction.
"We want to be here playing in the Europa League," he said.
"We must stay humble and have great conviction in our methods. We’re thinking about tomorrow, then we’ll have time to prepare as best we can for the derby."
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)