Gullit happy with Hughes the brave

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Ruud Gullit's Chelsea revolution has brought some of the best footballing talent of the continent to Stamford Bridge. However, the Dutchman concedes that an old-fashioned British bulldog - more specifically a fire- breathing Welsh dragon - has been as vital as any of his foreign legion recruits.

Mark Hughes' display as the Chelsea beat Liverpool on New Year's Day was comparable with many of his performances in two spells at Manchester United either side of his move to Barcelona. Winning the physical challenges, never stopping, always willing to demand the ball, the Welsh international striker was the embodiment of the team performance that brought Chelsea three points and opened up the title race.

It was a far cry from just three months ago, when the signing of Gianfranco Zola appeared to be spelling the end for the 33-year-old Hughes.

While Gullit denied that Hughes' Chelsea days were over, many thought otherwise, Bolton twice tabling bids to sign the Welshman. But while Gianluca Vialli has been consigned to the sidelines, Hughes has stayed and prospered, a symbiotic relationship with Zola benefiting both players and Gullit's team as a whole.

Gullit added his own personal tribute, as he admitted the importance Hughes has to his plans. "He is a leader on the pitch. That says everything you need to know," the Dutchman said. "You can tell from the reaction of the fans just how they respond to him, that they love him when he does what he did against Liverpool. Mark is great for the team and I believe he's having one of his best seasons ever.

"I've spoken to a few people who have followed him over the years, and they tell me the same thing. You can see that in the way he is playing, that he is very happy, and he is so important for us."

What Hughes does is to relieve the dancing Zola of much of the stick handed out in the Premiership battleground. The little Italian whose partnership with Hughes has harvested seven goals in four games is equally keen to thank his strike partner for his sterling service.

"Even when I was playing in Italy I knew about Mark because he is such a famous player, who has not just played in England," Zola said.

"I feel that when I'm playing alongside Mark I'm going to have a good game, because he helps me all the time and allows me to do well. As a team we're playing better. One of the reasons for that is that I'm playing better, and one of the reasons for that is Mark."

Hughes himself is certainly happy playing alongside the pounds 4.5m recruit from Parma. "He's such a good player," the Welshman said. "There would be something missing if you couldn't play well with him, he makes it easy to play with him and it would be a bad reflection on myself if I couldn't. But he's certainly added something to us and I know we're all delighted that he's here."

Hughes agreed that the win over Roy Evans' side had been a victory for Gullit's tactical appreciation. "They had a lot of the ball but they didn't create that much and we looked more dangerous," he said.