NOW the poster boy is out of action, it is time for the whipping boy to prove he is not quite as awful as everyone says.

To suggest that Fred - whose name, not to mention his style of play, is more Conference League North than Copacabana - is entering tonight's World Cup semi-final against Germany with his entire nation behind him would be misleading in the extreme. Just a matter of days ago, the newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, published the results of a supporters' survey which branded the Brazil striker, by quite some way, the worst player in Luis Felipe Scolari's squad.

The Fluminense forward received 21% of the vote, beating Hulk comfortably, another attacking player you would hardly place beside Pele or Garrincha in the pantheon of yellow-shirted demigods.

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Brazil just does not like Fred right now. In fairness, it is not difficult to see why.

He has managed one goal in five games during the tournament - an effort in the 4-1 group win over Cameroon that was actually offside - with his most telling contribution being that ridiculous dive to win a crucial penalty in the opening match against Croatia.

Going into the tournament, he had only scored once for Brazil in 12 months. His physical approach also seems to sum up so many of the home supporters' concerns about their favourites.

This team, particularly now Neymar has been ruled out with a fractured vertebra suffered in the quarter-final win over Colombia, is more about force than the nation's trademark flair. Of course, Fred is getting it in the neck more than most. It is just part of the deal when you agree to wear No.9 for a country whose obsession with the game creates a stifling, chest-crushing pressure almost certainly unique in global football.

Serginho was burdened by that weight of expectation in 1982. A gangly big galoot, it has to be said, he faced more flak from fans and other observers at the finals than he did tackles during the course of events in Spain.

He did score twice in five games, against New Zealand and Argentina, but was still branded the weak link in that hugely exciting Brazil team despite the fact it was defending of the most suicidal nature that finally caused them to fall against Italy in the second group stage.

In the end, though, and despite a fine record at club level in Brazil, he was just not good enough to succeed against the best in the world. It is tempting to say the same about Fred as he prepares for what may prove a defining game in his career.

Scolari, also missing his captain Thiago Silva through suspension as his appeal to FIFA was unsuccessful, needs to pull a rabbit out of the hat against the Germans. Neymar has been his side's creative soul. On current form, you would not send Fred or Hulk for the messages far less put them in front of goal.

Oscar has been on the slide since his goalscoring display against Croatia and Willian, widely tipped to come into the team this evening, does not appear to be the kind of man to win a match single-handedly.

Can Fred somehow regain his mojo and his eye for goal? Serginho, empathy seeping from his every pore, believes he can.

He knows what it is like to be blamed for a side's vulnerabilities and pilloried when defeat finally comes, but he insists that Fred requires better service from those around him tonight and will enter the Estadio Mineirao in his home state of Belo Horizonte with recent criticism inflaming his desire to score for his country.

"I have been through similar situations," said Serginho. "He must be thinking: 'Damn! I need to score.' A hurt striker becomes more dangerous, though.

"Neymar was always looking for ways to get the ball to Fred, but others now have to help. In my opinion, his performance against Chile was better. He gave options.

"We don't all like Fred yet, but there is one thing you can be sure: the ball is not coming to him. For me, Fred has proved he is the best option. He was spectacular in the Confederations Cup last year."

Indeed, he was. After drawing blanks in the opening two fixtures of that competition, Fred scored twice against Italy in a 4-2 victory and finished the top scorer with five goals after taking another two off Spain in the final.

Careca, winner of the Silver Boot at Mexico '86 and a member of the Brazil squad at Italia '90, shares the view that the one-time Olympique Lyon forward is being let down by his team-mates and has suggested that Scolari should consider allowing him to form a two-man frontline beside Jo.

Jo, of course, has been restricted to cameo appearances during this World Cup and is known best on these shores for managing just six league goals in two years with Manchester City and Everton. Putting him forward as a potential saviour is not an opinion shared by many.

"Very few balls are arriving for Fred," said Careca. "It is proving difficult for him between the defenders. We just need a little more movement and articulation in midfield to get the ball to him more. I think he is playing in a very isolated position, with two semi-strikers in Hulk and Oscar.

"Fred is a great striker and I have no doubt he can do more for the team. Why not play him and Jo together? We have always been feared when with two strikers, such as Romario and Ronaldo."

Desperate times do often require desperate measures, mind you. With Neymar having been sent home from the camp and Thiago Silva unavailable, there is a feeling Brazil's time in the competition may be drawing to a close.