It is scapegoat time in France. With pressure mounting over a World Cup qualification campaign that has turned into a tense struggle, the man who cannot find the target has become the target. Karim Benzema is taking the flak for a barren run in front of goal. France go into Tuesday's match in Belarus on a run of five games without scoring - their most meager return in their history. That is the kind of football record a team can do without.
Benzema's own form makes for painful statistics. His last international goal came well over a year ago, in June 2012. Some 1,217 minutes of football for Les Bleus has yielded 58 shots, but no goals. "Benzema, that's enough," tutted the sports newspaper L'Equipe. They ran a poll about whether or not he should be dropped, and the result, from almost 12,000 voters, was unequivocal. Public opinion suggests the Real Madrid striker be sent to the metaphorical guillotine of international football.
Although Benzema is bearing the brunt of criticism, it must be said France are suffering from not having a number 10, a creative playmaker, to build their attack around. If the offensive play is stilted, the lack of a precision passer with time and vision only adds to the problem. Hopes are pinned on Arsenal's Olivier Giroud and Marseille's Andre-Pierre Gignac - two decent club players, but with three and four goals respectively to their name for France, they are a little short of goalscoring clout, too.
France's disappointment is enhanced because there was genuine hope that under Didier Deschamps, the captain of the team who won the 1998 World Cup, the team would settle and improve. The coach is feeling the heat, though, having overseen a woeful run - four wins from eleven games is the worst on record for the national team. A fighter to the last as a player, Deschamps is not one for towel throwing. "I still have some solutions but I do not have a miracle cure," he said.
Of all the 53 European countries thrown into the ring for World Cup qualification, it's fair to say that nobody must have felt as disenchanted by their group as France. They drew the shortest straw by being paired with Spain, which made their chances of a guaranteed ticket to Brazil by topping their section particularly tough.
As it happened, they responded well to the challenge and started as if intent to upset the apple cart. Three wins, and a well-earned draw in Spain, was promising enough. But the mood has plummeted as performances - and goals - have dried up since.
France look likely to face a play-off to reach Brazil. They also needed one to stake their claim for the last World Cup in South Africa. That contest, against the Republic of Ireland, became infamous for a Thierry Henry handball which helped France achieve the result they needed.
The French are not the only major European nation heading into a critical game without a striker they can depend upon. England find themselves in the peculiar situation where they are down to a fifth-choice forward, and that man happens to be Rickie Lambert of Southampton , whose late rise to international fame wouldn't be out of place in a book of fairy stories.
Forward Rickie Lambert has been on a magic run for the Three Lions. (Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
"I didn't always believe it, but I've always dreamt it," said Lambert of his sudden adventure for England. "It's surreal the way the fans have taken to me." Lambert represents the fantasy that sometimes, somehow, a little bit of stardust gets sprinkled on somebody supposedly ordinary. Lambert's background in the lower divisions is part of folklore now. The fact he used to work in a beetroot factory when he didn't have a club has become so well-known it is a cliche already. It still seems like a mission impossible that Lambert could make his international debut at the age of 31.
Events have conspired to send England into a vital World Cup game in Ukraine led by a man who cannot stop pinching himself. With a handful of first-choice strikers unavailable because of various injuries (Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Andy Carroll are all absent) and an unfortunate suspension (Danny Welbeck is ruled out) Lambert is in position to seize the moment. It is extraordinary situation, as Lambert has never before played a competitive game outside the UK.
Lambert gave another fine audition at Wembley with a goal and a couple of assists in the 4-0 win over Moldova. He knows that, personally speaking, the game in Ukraine is another massive chance to prove to the coach, Roy Hodgson, he is worthy of consideration for a squad to Brazil if England make it.
In a way, Lambert comes from the opposite end of the international spectrum to Benzema, who was earmarked from his teenaged years as a golden prospect, who represented France at every junior age group, who was wrapped in cotton wool by clubs and agents as a famous prodigy.
With a strange twist of fate, it is the kid who had it all, Benzema, who is under pressure. Lambert, the kid who was released by Third Division Blackpool, who didn't think he was good enough, is flying on air.