UEFA Champions League Goals Reload - Episode 1Sep 22
“What I want most is to return to play with Messi, to enjoy myself with him on the pitch again. I want to play again with him.”
Neymar is the undoubted star of the show, scoring twice in a dazzling individual performance.
But after the match, the Brazilian’s mind is clearly on other matters – in particular, a potential reunion with former Barcelona team-mate Lionel Messi.
With a glint in his eye, he adds: “For sure next year we will do it.”
For a long time, the most likely route to any such reunion appeared to be Neymar returning to Barcelona rather than Messi swapping Catalonia for Paris.
The ink on the remarkable €222m deal to bring Neymar to the French capital in 2017 had barely dried when reports that he was already regretting the move began to emerge.
“[Neymar] had almost immediate regrets,” a source close to the Barcelona board at the time of the transfer tells The Athletic.
“He was contacting the club to take him back again, on a regular basis, four or five months after he left. But he couldn’t as PSG were nothing like a selling club, and would have looked stupid doing it.”
“There was always the idea that maybe he would return,” says a well-connected Blaugrana socio, also in an interview with The Athletic.
The relationship with Leo was always great. At the moment it is easier for Messi to go to Paris, than Neymar to return to Barcelona.
- Source close to Neymar
“His departure for no good reason left some very bad feelings - disappointment, even anger, and a bit of betrayal. But there was still a part of the socios who would have welcomed him back with open arms, as he is a great player.”
However, for all the media talk – including links with Real Madrid and Manchester United - Neymar has remained at the Parc des Princes, hoovering up nine domestic trophies and helping the team reach last year’s Champions League final.
The suggestion that PSG are not the sort of club to be bullied into an embarrassing climbdown has proved correct.
“Lots of things have come out in the media which are not true,” a former Blaugrana director tells The Athletic.
“If he was going to come back, if this or that. But I knew it was impossible for him to return to Barcelona. He was under contract at PSG. And PSG do not negotiate.”
Fast forward to the present day and the narrative has shifted firmly in the opposite direction.
Neymar’s comments at Old Trafford understandably generated plenty of excitement in the Catalan press.
But ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League last-16 clash between the Brazilian’s current and former employers, which will be shown exclusively live on BT Sport, the reality is that a Messi move to PSG now seems far more conceivable than Neymar returning to the Nou Camp.
"I want to stay," the 29-year-old told French TV in January, and a source close to the player confirmed to The Athletic that Neymar now sees his long-term future in Paris.
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“He is a very professional kid,” says the source. “He is very happy there [at PSG]. He does not need anything. He wants a good team around him, the best. So he is happy there now.”
It could hardly be more galling for Barcelona that, in Neymar’s view, “the best” team seemingly no longer means them.
Messi, meanwhile, effectively said as much when justifying his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to force his way out of the club last summer.
The Argentine is out of contract in three months’ time and the well-documented breakdown in his relationship with the club's hierarchy has cast huge doubt over his next move.
Even boss Ronald Koeman admitted recently that he is in the dark about Messi’s plans for next season.
The ongoing financial problems at the Nou Camp also appear to price Barcelona out of any prospective move to lure Neymar back to the club where he scored 105 goals and made 76 assists in 186 games in a trophy-laden four-year spell.
“The relationship with Leo was always great,” says the source close to Neymar.
“At the moment it is easier for Messi to go to Paris, than Neymar to return to Barcelona.”
The devastating 8-2 thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich in last year’s Champions League quarter-finals was a key factor in Messi’s desire to seek pastures new ahead of the 2020/21 campaign.
So it was tempting to wonder if he was already contemplating what it might be like to play in this current PSG team as he watched Kylian Mbappe and company romp to a 4-1 win at the Nou Camp three weeks ago.
Neymar, for his part, was forced to watch that game from the sidelines, rather than cherish the chance to return to a stadium which still clearly holds very fond memories.
But the gaping chasm between the sides in that first leg cannot have escaped either man’s attention.
Neymar will also miss out on Wednesday as he continues to recover from an adductor injury.
So for now, we're denied the overdue opportunity to watch them both weave their unique magic on the same pitch again.
They are yet to face each other on the club or international stage since the Brazilian left Barcelona but the wait may not go on much longer.
Now, perhaps more than ever, the feeling is that their next meeting won't be as rivals, but as team-mates once more.
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