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 By Ben Gladwell

Leonardo Bonucci: It's 'fundamental' AC Milan qualify for Champions League

AC Milan defender Leonardo Bonucci says it is "fundamental" that the club finish in Serie A's top four this season as Champions League qualification is the minimum objective.

Speaking ahead of their clash with Rijeka in the Europa League -- a competition which would also offer a route into the Champions League -- Bonucci said they need to respond to criticism following their 2-0 defeat at Sampdoria last weekend and prove they are ready to return to European football's elite club competition.

"When I chose to come to Milan, I knew there would be another side to the medal from the one I saw the day I was presented here," he said at a news conference. "The message the club were giving out was clear: this year is no joking matter.

"Milan have got to be Milan and must overcome obstacles. There's no time to look back and reflect, we need to lead Milan into the Champions League and fight for the leading positions in Serie A -- it's fundamental."

Milan are six points off the pace at the top of Serie A after their second league defeat in six outings and Bonucci says it has been a turbulent few days since the Sampdoria clash.

"We lived 72 intense hours, and it's normal when you are wearing such an important jersey," he added. "What happened in Genoa [against Sampdoria] was exactly what we wanted to avoid, but I am motivated, I want to continue playing with this team and to show I am an important player.

"I have to perform at my best as a player and as the leader of this squad. I am not satisfied. I have not been accurate enough but I have the desire to bounce back and respond on the pitch. The critics can be a spur to improve, and I will begin from today.

"It is exactly in tough times when we discover our full potential, it allows our mind and body to push ourselves beyond our limits. We have played well in Europe to be fair, we also have to balance the critics, but of course, we want to play well every time and we must give our best on every match.

"As I said in the past, when I chose to come to AC Milan I knew I would go through good and bad times. I don't feel like the scapegoat, I feel questioned as it's natural to be in my position. This is also useful to keep my motivation at its highest, to give 100 percent instead of searching for excuses.

"I am angry about the last match, in a reasonable manner. What we spoke inside the dressing room remains between us, and this is what makes a team strong: we have to face each other and accept the healthy competitiveness inside the team both in training and during matches."

Milan will be keen to build on their opening Europa League group-stage 5-1 win at Austria Vienna when they host Rijeka on Thursday night.

They then host Roma in Serie A on Sunday evening before the international break, after which they face Inter Milan in the first Milan derby of the season.

Ben Gladwell reports on Serie A, the Italian national team and the Bundesliga for ESPN FC, UEFA and the Press Association. @UEFAcomBenG.

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