By Simon Evans
MILAN, Nov 20 (Reuters) AC Milan captain Paolo Maldini believes that his team's domestic troubles could help the Italians to enjoy success in Europe this season.
Milan, who need a point at AEK Athens tomorrow to secure a place in the last 16 of the Champions League, are 15th in Serie A, a full 22 points behind leaders Inter.
''This reminds me of the 2002/03 season when we had some difficulties in Serie A but enjoyed great success in Europe -- that can happen again,'' said Maldini, recalling the season when Milan beat Juventus on penalties at Old Trafford to win their sixth European Cup.
Milan began the season with an eight-point penalty imposed by a sports tribunal which had investigated allegations of match-fixing, but even without that handicap they would still be well off the pace.
After four defeats in five Serie A matches, Milan could only manage a goalless draw away to Empoli on Saturday.
Brazilian striker Ricardo Oliveira, brought in to replace Ukrainian Andriy Shevchenko who moved to Chelsea in the close season, twice struck the woodwork on Saturday and Maldini said that reflects the team's ill-fortune.
''This is not a lucky period for us but we are showing that we can stick together in a game and remain focused right until the end. It is the crossbar and the posts which are stopping us at the moment,'' he said.
The 38-year-old defender also dismissed suggestions that the team was over the hill with too many players in their thirties.
''Thankfully it is not those who may not know too much about football who make the judgements about us but it is our coach, Carlo Ancelotti, who sees us every day on the training ground who makes the choices,'' he said.
Speaking to reporters before the team's flight to Greece, Ancelotti struck a defiant tone.
''We are still in top place in the European rankings and we have earned that spot over the past five years and want to stay there,'' he said.
''On Tuesday we want to secure our passage into the next round so that we can go into the final group game calm. We are top of our group in the Champions League.'' Milan beat the Greeks 3-0 in the opening game of Group H in September but Ancelotti warned against reading too much into that result.
''It won't be easy in Athens because AEK have really improved a lot since we met them,'' said the Milan coach.
Milan's recent run of poor form has included home defeats to the top three sides in Serie A -- Inter, Palermo and AS Roma.
REUTERS SAM HT1940