Alessandro Costacurta blames the AC Milan players for the team's struggles in Serie A this season and, despite seeing recent improvements, feels the top three is beyond them.
Milan have found consistency hard to come by this season and occupy sixth place in the table, eight points adrift of third-placed Inter and a further four away from leaders Napoli.
Head coach Sinisa Mihajlovic stemmed the flow of criticism directed his way with a 2-0 win over Fiorentina on Sunday.
However, Costacurta - a seven-time Scudetto winner with the Rossoneri - feels a potential return to form has come too late to challenge for a Champions League qualification berth.
"I would be more upset with the players as they could have played like this two months ago. They were the ones playing below their standards," he told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"It can't be [chief executive] Adriano Galliani and Mihajlovic's fault. Time is needed to see through a project, even though some time has passed.
"I don't think they can finish in the top three. Napoli, Juventus, Roma and even Inter are stronger. Only Roma are inferior in terms of mentality at this time.
"Fourth or fifth place [is more realistic], but above all else they must continue with the project they had in mind, when they signed young players along with Italians.
"The signings they made this year were very good. With another two they can push to finish on the podium next season.
"Although I'm not sure they've completely turned things around. For example, after the win against Lazio, problems emerged again."
Costacurta likened Carlos Bacca, Milan's leading scorer this term, to Hernan Crespo and called for Mario Balotelli to be given more opportunities alongside the Colombian.
"[Bacca] is exactly like the Crespo I played with. He surprises you by making some great plays," the 49-year-old added.
"Everyone is pushing for M'Baye Niang [alongside Bacca], but Mario Balotelli has more quality and would help the final third."