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Raheem Sterling’s two goals against Spain last month took him through a “psychological barrier” that had been affecting his England form, according to Gareth Southgate, who detects a new sense of self-belief in the in-form forward.

England face the USA in a friendly on Thursday and then, next Sunday, host Croatia in a decisive Nations League match. They do so with Sterling, who has scored seven times this season for Manchester City, playing arguably the best football of his career, and the signs are that this is true of his international form, too. Both goals in Seville, his first for England since 2015, were confidently taken and Southgate believes a player whose end-product been subjected to intense scrutiny has turned a corner.

“I am really pleased for him because he is in outstanding form,” the England manager said. “I was at City on Sunday and he had an outstanding performance against Southampton. We have got huge belief in him and that belief in his own game is coming now. We have been happy with his performances for a long time and the missing piece has been the goals. You can see what it meant to him in Seville to get the goals he has been overdue with us.

“So I think that was a big psychological barrier overcome. He has continued that form with his club over the last few weeks and we are really looking forward to seeing him again next week.”

After the 6-1 win over Southampton, in which Sterling scored twice and provided three assists, Pep Guardiola suggested he was vastly different to the player he had found when taking control of City in 2016. Sterling had been “scared” in front of goal at that point, Guardiola suggested, and Southgate did not disagree.

“In any sport you’re at your best when you’re playing without thinking too much,” he said. “He got his chance and just hit it [against Spain], he didn’t have an extra touch or wait an extra half-second or millisecond, and that’s why he scored the goals he did. You want all players to be free of overthinking, that’s when they’re in a good place and a good flow.”

Much of the international agenda going into this month’s break has focused on off-pitch matters and there has been controversy about Gianni Infantino’s wish to bring forward the World Cup’s expansion to the 2022 tournament. The Fifa president deems it feasible that 48 teams may compete in Qatar but Southgate is against the idea in principle.

“I personally wouldn’t be a fan of that,” he said. “I think one of the important things around tournaments and qualifying tournaments is the jeopardy around it. One of the things about the Nations League is that we’re looking at a game where we could be going to a semi-final or we could be out of the league. That sort of jeopardy adds tension to the games and excitement for the fans.

“I think we’ve always got to have a mind of the feeling for the supporters about the importance of each match. We’ve got to be careful not to make tournaments too big and then make qualifying too straightforward.”

Southgate was cautious, too, about an idea for which Infantino has considerably less enthusiasm. Infantino has threatened to ban players participating in any notional European super league from competing in World Cups; the prospect of a breakaway from leading clubs is firmly on the agenda and while he did not condemn the idea, Southgate stressed domestic football must be protected.

“I think we’d have to tread very carefully,” he said. “How would the domestic league be affected, if at all? I think supporters are as excited about, at times more excited by, a trip 50 miles down the road than they are a trip of 3,000 miles. The history of those fixtures and the local-rivalry nature of those fixtures – there’s a lot for people to think about when they are thinking about those changes of format.

“I think we have always got to respect tradition, but also always not to stand still as a sport if we think there are things that can be improved. I think we have always got to have an open mind and find out a bit more detail about what is proposed and how it might work.”

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