Jess Park is Manchester City’s surprise revelation as title race is blown open

<span>Jess Park played a key role in <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester City;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester City</a>’s winning goal against Chelsea.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>

With just eight games left to play in the Women’s Super League, Manchester City produced an inspired performance under the lights at Kingsmeadow to pull themselves level with Chelsea at the top of the table. In a victory that ended Chelsea’s 22-game winning streak at home in the league, Gareth Taylor’s side proved their credentials as title contenders with a controlled performance that was emblematic of their progression as a team.

Playing an integral role in their display was the 22-year-old Jess Park who has been perhaps a surprise revelation in the City midfield in recent weeks. Her technical abilities, speed and awareness were evident throughout and it was her aggressiveness in the press that forced the experienced Erin Cuthbert into a mistake for Khadija Shaw’s 14th-minute goal.

Related: Manchester City sink Chelsea to join hosts on top of the WSL

As the Chelsea captain dithered on the ball, facing her own goal, Park buzzed around waiting for her opportunity to pounce. She made her presence felt, nipping in to win the ball and feed the unstoppable Shaw to turn home her 14th goal of the campaign. It was the move that ultimately won the game for City, but in addition to her attacking qualities, Park showed a defensive maturity that particularly demonstrated her development. An impressive contribution from what was in fact her first league start of the season and one that put the icing on the cake of a week that has also seen her recalled to the England team.

It followed on from her influential run-out against Arsenal in the FA Cup last weekend and continued to prove that her patience is paying off. For she has barely been given a chance, her time limited to a smattering of substitute appearances since returning from a loan spell at Everton at the end of last season. Park has had to bide her time but the absence of City’s star signing, Jill Roord – the Dutch international suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in January – saw a spot in the midfield open up and she is grasping her opportunity.

It has been particularly eye-catching that she is having to quickly adapt to a new position. Traditionally seen as a winger, Taylor has moved Park to a more central role where she can operate more as a No 8 and 10. “She’s so good at driving between lines,” her manager reflected. “Jess has always been a player that has really interested me ... She’s had to be patient and her training levels and her attitude have been first class. We’ve adjusted her position a little but I’ve always felt she’s capable of playing in between the lines.”

Related: Gareth Taylor hails watershed after Manchester City end Chelsea run

This is where she was situated for much of the evening, her relationships clearly building with Laura Coombs next to her and Yui Hasegawa in the deeper midfield role. Those two players provide her with the perfect support and experience to help continue her development.

In Hasegawa, City possess a player who has firmly established herself as one of the world’s best No 6s, epitomised by the way she handled Chelsea’s midfield duo and the electric Lauren James in the No 10 role. Despite her 5ft 2in frame, she is incredibly strong in tackles and has won possession back more times than any other player in the WSL this season.

At one point in the first half, she managed to hold off the attentions of Mayra Ramírez, standing eight inches taller, and turn away from her with ease. It left Chelsea’s new Colombian striker looking dejected in the middle, with James only able to offer her teammate a light pat on the back in consolation.

It was this midfield control that essentially won Manchester City the game, overwhelming both Cuthbert and Melanie Leupolz who have dominated so often for Chelsea. In the first half, it consisted of their intensity in the press; in the second, their resoluteness in defence. This coupled with the consistency of their backline and commanding performance from their 19-year-old keeper Khiara Keating ensured that the Manchester-based side could protect their lead.

Alex Greenwood and Laia Aleixandri resorted to throwing themselves at everything in the final stages, a hallmark of their no-nonsense central defensive partnership. The proof of this resilience is in the statistics. They remain the meanest defence in the division having conceded just eight.

It was a performance and result that delighted Taylor from the sidelines – a true example of the development his side have displayed in this campaign. It extended his team’s record to 11 wins in all competitions.

There is a long way left to go in the story of this season, but this felt like a pivotal night. Had Chelsea won, they would have almost had one hand on the title but with their show of determination and maturity, Manchester City managed to blow the title race wide open once again and announce themselves clearly as the key challengers to Chelsea’s dominance.