Ahead of the World Cup group stage draw on Friday, take a closer look at each of the four pots, and which teams could pose danger for the highest-seeded squads.
The World Cup draw is Friday in Moscow, where the biggest remaining unknowns heading into next summer's competition will be cleared up. The four pots will yield eight groups that we'll all be able to dissect from all angles leading up to the June 14 opener featuring host Russia and its first opponent.
The pots, as has been widely documented in recent months, were determined by using the October FIFA ranking, with the teams, aside from Russia, being placed in sequential order.
As most are well aware, that FIFA table is constructed with metrics that don't necessarily reflect where nations actually sit on the competitive spectrum. In the November ranking, for example, 10 of the top 32 teams aren't even competing in the World Cup. That said, the best 32 teams in the world don't necessarily compete at the World Cup, either. All of that means there is plenty of room for discussion within each pot. Here's how each one shapes up entering the group draw, with the most current FIFA ranking attached:
1. Germany (FIFA Ranking: 1)
The Germans were clinical and downright dominant throughout World Cup qualifying, and Jogi Low has restocked his roster after a number of vital veterans from the 2014 championship squad stepped aside. No team has repeated as World Cup champion since Pele's Brazil in 1958 and 1962, but a balanced Germany stands as good a chance as any of replicating the feat.
2. Brazil (2)
Brazil is about way more than just Neymar this time around, and its form after Tite took over as manager has proven to be no joke. Four years after the nightmare of 7-1 on home soil, the Seleção are poised to contend for a sixth title–some 60 years after capturing a first.
3. France (9)
No team in the world has more talent on paper than France. The problem is, Didier Deschamps can only bring 23 players to Russia, and he can only play 11 at a time. Despite their riches and considering the expectations, Les Bleus were a bit underwhelming throughout qualifying and haven't established themselves as true favorites. Deschamps's selections will be under quite the microscope.
4. Belgium (5)
Belgium is like France Lite. There is so much attacking talent at Roberto Martinez's disposal (Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens to name a few of his options), and after coasting through qualifying, the only question remaining is whether Belgium can put it all together on the biggest stage. The answer at Euro 2016 was "No."
5. Portugal (3)
The European champions don't get a ton of respect, but with Cristiano Ronaldo, midfield steel and a veteran core coming off a Euro 2016 triumph, there's certainly a sense of internal belief that should manifest itself in Russia.
6. Argentina (4)
After a qualifying debacle was averted, Jorge Sampaoli can take the time to mold his side into a the contender it truly should be. His preferred forward, Dario Benedetto, is set to be in a fitness race for the World Cup after tearing his ACL, which means the likes of Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi could be the ones teaming with the heroic Lionel Messi, who figured to be facing his last best chance to win a World Cup. Like Belgium and France, there's an embarrassment of attacking riches available for selection, but unlike its European counterparts, Argentina hasn't found a way for that to translate into goals.
7. Poland (7)
Robert Lewandowski & Co. gamed the system a bit to reach the top pot by limiting the number of friendlies played, and kudos to them for doing so. It could mean a decisive competitive advantage, depending on the draw, and as long as Lewandowski is leading the line, Poland will be a tough out.
8. Russia (65)
The lowest-ranked team in the field is the host nation, but by virtue of its hosting duties, it gets lumped together with some of the world's elite. It's a tough draw to be the visiting side in the opening game of the competition, but no team in any of the other three pots will be fearful of this Russia side, even one that can feature dangerous attacking talents like Alan Dzagoev and Fyodor Smolov.
1. Spain (6)
Spain got the rawest deal of all, missing out on the top pot despite a vicious qualifying campaign from a reinvigorated side. No Pot 1 team will want to be paired with La Furia Roja, which has the pieces to bounce back–and then some–from its shocking group elimination in 2014.
2. Uruguay (21)
La Celeste finished second to Brazil in CONMEBOL qualifying, and in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani boast two forwards capable of dynamic outbursts (and in the case of Suarez, it's not entirely clear which kind of outburst that may be, though to be fair, he has gone through a rather lengthy incident-free run since chomping on Giorgio Chiellini's shoulder).
3. Croatia (17)
When Croatia is determined and focused, it's as good and capable as anyone. Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic are among the stars donning those gorgeous checkered uniforms, and any opponent would be hard-pressed to overlook this veteran side.
4. Colombia (13)
James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao return to lead the attack, but the likes of Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina bring a necessary injection of youth into the club's defense. Los Cafeteros danced their way to a country-best showing in 2014, and even though the three-plus years since haven't been full of accomplishment or linear upward growth, there's reason to take this side seriously.
5. Switzerland (8)
Balanced and not flashy, the Swiss were fortunate to eke by Northern Ireland in the playoff, riding a dubious penalty to the narrow aggregate win. That said, nobody should take a side that went 9-0-0 until its final qualifier vs. Portugal lightly, and in a balanced group, a veteran-laden Switzerland could find itself atop the table.
6. England (15)
England has been largely unremarkable in a successful run under Gareth Southgate, but its Tottenham stars–namely Harry Kane and Dele Alli–have the tools to provide a spark lacking in past tournaments and during the qualifying campaign.
7. Mexico (16)
Nobody should be talking Mexico lightly, not with the amount of firepower available to Juan Carlos Osorio. Hirving Lozano is emerging as a breakout star at the right time, and could supplant Chicharito as the face of El Tri with a dynamic performance under the bright Russian lights.
8. Peru (11)
Back in the World Cup for the first time since 1982, Peru is guided by the masterful Ricardo Gareca. Captain and all-time leading scorer Paolo Guerrero has his future hanging in the balance amid a doping ban, but Peru is not as Guerrero-dependent as some may assume and managed to overcome his absence to outlast New Zealand in a tricky intercontinental playoff that featured thousands of miles traveled for a relatively quick turnaround between the two legs.
1. Denmark (12)
The Danes were one intercontinental or UEFA playoff upset away from climbing to Pot 2, and they're not going to make for an easy out. With Christian Eriksen at the wheel, Denmark, especially in the right group, could be one of the true surprise packages poised for a deep run.
2. Iceland (22)
Is there anyone not secretly (or very outwardly) not rooting for another shock run from this bunch? Iceland built on its Euro 2016 success by winning a tough World Cup qualifying group, proving itself worthy of a place on this stage well before it expands to 48 teams. You know what you're getting with Iceland at this point, and for any team in the top two pots, that means a potential banana peel on the road to the trophy.
3. Costa Rica (26)
The 2014 quarterfinals won't be sneaking up on anyone, but that doesn't make them any less formidable as an opponent. A resolute defense, star goalkeeper and opportunistic attack can result in a successful epilogue for Los Ticos, who haven't really ushered in a new generation of can't-miss talent, but still have a quite capable one.
4. Sweden (18)
Sans Zlatan, Sweden bested Italy in the playoff round to return to the World Cup stage and also beat France in group play, so there's no fear factor for this side. Instead of a relying on a dynamic star like Ibrahimovic, though, Sweden offers a balanced, if not unspectacular approach. It won't be the most aesthetically pleasing team in Russia, but it's far from an easy one to beat.
5. Egypt (31)
The Mohamed Salah-led Pharaohs are back in the World Cup for the first time since 1990, and there's reason to believe they'll surpass that team's last-place group finish. Egypt is not exactly one of Africa's most powerful sides, but it defends well and, in Salah, has a genuine game-breaking talent.
6. Senegal (23)
Back in the World Cup for the first time since its 2002 quarterfinal run, Senegal has the individual talent needed to spring a set of surprises. Featuring the likes of Sadio Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly and Keita Balde, the Lions of Teranga could roar quite loudly once again.
7. Iran (32)
Iran, still coached by Carlos Queiroz, went unbeaten in qualifying, was one of the first teams to qualify and is a tough side to break down. It's also one that managed just 10 goals in 10 qualifiers and might lack the firepower to keep up with the likes of Brazil, France, Belgium, Croatia, Colombia and Uruguay should the balls fall that way.
8. Tunisia (27)
Tunisia went unbeaten in its qualifying group, too, but it wasn't a particularly daunting one, and there's not really a single player likely to strike fear in an opponent.
1. Nigeria (50)
The Super Eagles could be the biggest wildcard in the field. There's talent up and down the roster, and there won't be any World Cup roster bonus distraction after an agreement was reached to ensure the players get paid. If there's a team out of the final pot that the favorites will want to avoid, it's Nigeria.
2. Japan (55)
Japan certainly didn't overwhelm its Asian competition in qualifying, leading there to be a sense of "meh" around the side. Its top talents are either approaching or on the wrong side of 30, and there's been little indication that the Samurai Blue will be able to play spoiler. Wind up in a group with Russia and, say, Peru, however...
3. Serbia (37)
Serbia, which topped a group featuring Ireland, Wales and Austria, is still without a permanent manager despite qualification. Slavoljub Muslin was ousted from his seat, leaving an air of instability around the team. Will a new manager be able to build a cohesive unit in a matter of months? Time is ticking.
4. Morocco (40)
Morocco is manager Herve Renard's latest success story, with the two-time Africa Cup of Nations winner guiding the 2026 World Cup host hopeful back to the World Cup stage for the first time since 1998. With Medhi Benatia roaming in the back, Morocco didn't concede a single goal in its six qualifiers and could frustrate top attacking sides.
5. South Korea (59)
South Korea is flying a bit under the radar, thanks to an underwhelming qualifying campaign, but in Son-Heung min and Ji-Dong won it has players capable of producing a better performance on the big stage.
6. Panama (56)
In the World Cup for the first time, there's a natural inclination that Los Canaleros will just be happy to be there. Its veteran generation finally broke through and finished ahead of the USA in qualifying, getting its chance at the World Cup once and for all. In order for it to be a stay that lasts longer than three games and one that mimics Costa Rica's 2014 as the next CONCACAF surprise, it'll have to remove its penchant for total breakdowns, as evidenced by its 4-0 loss to the USA in October, and show it can win far away from home.
7. Australia (39)
Like Serbia, the Socceroos are without a manager after Ange Postecoglou stepped aside despite a successful intercontinental playoff vs. Honduras. With uncertainty reigning an an attack centered on aging stars whose primes have long passed, Australia isn't likely to knock off any of the top dogs in the competition.
8. Saudi Arabia (63)
Saudi Arabia will be on its third coach of the cycle after Bert van Marwijk's replacement, Edgardo Bauza, was cast aside after a series of post-qualifying friendlies. It's a plum job for someone to fall into–coach in the World Cup without putting in the leg work to get there–but it'll be a tall task for whoever takes charge.