Barcelona’s Lionel Messi better now than when he won five Ballon d’Ors Javier Mascherano

Former Barcelona defender Javier Mascherano says that Lionel Messi is an even better player now than he was when he won his five Ballon d’Ors.

Messi, 31 this summer, has not won the prestigious prize since 2015, missing out to Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo in each of the last two years.

However, Mascherano believes that despite not adding to his Ballon d’Or collection, Messi has improved as a player.

“It’s unlikely we’ll ever see a player like Messi again,” Mascherano, who swapped Barca for Hebei China Fortune in January, told Mundo Deportivo. “I was lucky to spend a lot of my career playing next to such a unique player. His evolution as a player has been incredible, unbelievable.

“He is much better now than when he won the five Ballon d’Ors. You wonder how that’s possible, but it’s true, he’s much better now.”

An explosive winger and a false No. 9 in past guises, Messi has dropped deeper this season under Ernesto Valverde.

The Argentina forward has acknowledged that his role on the pitch has changed but he remains committed to getting forward and scoring goals.

That is demonstrated by the fact that, with 34 league goals, he is on track to win the European Golden Shoe for the fifth time in his career — more than any other player.

If you include the 12 goals he has assisted — more than any other player in La Liga — he has contributed to almost 49 percent of Barcelona’s goals this season as they raced to the title with four games to spare.

Messi still has two games to add to his total, too, with Barca in action against Levante on Sunday and Real Sociedad next weekend.

As long as they don’t lose either of those games, Barcelona will become the first-ever side to go through an entire 38-game campaign unbeaten in Spain’s top flight.