Pep Guardiola says he doubts whether Neymar would be the same player he was during his time at Barcelona if he opts to switch back to Camp Nou from Paris Saint-Germain this summer.
Speculation is growing that the 28-year-old has grown weary with life at PSG, who won their second successive Ligue 1 title at a canter last season, and that a return to Spain is his preferred next move.
The champions’ Qatari owners are reportedly steadfast in their reluctance to allow the player they bought for €222m (£200m/$252m) just two summers ago to leave, as they seek to finally make headway next season on their stated goal of winning the Champions League.
And Guardiola, who left Barca in 2012 having won three La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues, says he is not certain whether the team would get the same player back that scored 105 goals in four seasons during his first spell at the club.
“Neymar is an extraordinary player,” he told Cataluña newspaper Ara. “But I don’t know. It’s like if I go back to Barcelona, I am not the same person, and I don’t know if Neymar would be the same. Well, he is great, nobody doubts it.
Neymar was part of the Barcelona side that won a domestic and European treble under Luis Enrique in 2015, beating Juventus 3-1 in the final to lift a fourth Champions League title in 10 years.
Alongside Messi and Luis Suarez he was part of a three-pronged attack that was credited with revolutionising the way Barca played, from the patient possession football directed by Guardiola to a more pacey and direct style.
Now the club’s captain, talisman Messi is reportedly keen to rekindle that feted front three as a potential remedy to the frustrating wait for another Champions League crown.
Guardiola thinks his former employers already boast the talent to keep the Argentina international satisfied with his surroundings, and defended incumbent coach Ernesto Valverde’s failure to avert a European implosion against Liverpool.
“I think they are there, the right players. They have always been there,” he said.
“I recently said that the two toughest rivals I have encountered in my career are Liverpool this year and Luis Enrique’s Barca.
“The Champions League is very demanding… the defensive involvement in Europe is very large.
“That is one of the reasons I played Leo through the middle. I didn’t want Leo to experience the physical wear and tear, so he could express his talent in the last 20 metres of the pitch.
“But at the Camp Nou against Liverpool he ran like a beast. If they had reached the Champions League final, they would have won.”
Ex-Barca star Pedro, who played alongside the South American before heading to Chelsea in 2015, spoke last week about his desire to see Neymar back in Barca’s colours .
He told reporters at a charity event in Tenerife: “Of course he can come back.