When the World Cup 2018 draw gets under way in Moscow on Friday, all the nations will nervously dread being picked in a ‘Group of Death’.
Get pulled out alongside several of the globe’s grandest sides, and their stay in Russia could shorten drastically.
Unlike previous editions, all four pots this time are based on FIFA rankings – with the exception of hosts Russia who are automatically assigned to Position A1.
This has opened up the possibilities for a more stringent selection, especially as two UEFA sides can be placed together.
Here, we select what could be the toughest group possible.
The rabble that was humiliated on home soil four years ago has been utterly elevated by the ascensions of superstar forward Neymar and congenial head coach Tite.
There is world-class quality throughout this squad. Gone are the days of unconvincing journeyman like Fred leading the line.
In a lethal 4-3-3 formation, Paris Saint-Germain’s €222 million (Dh967.4m) Neymar and Liverpool genius Philippe Coutinho flank rising Manchester City star Gabriel Jesus. Tite’s Corinthians connection is apparent in midfield through Barcelona powerhouse Paulinho and Beijing Guoan’s Renato Augusto, while Internazionale’s Miranda provides vital experience at centre-back.
Brazil were simply incredible during South American’s exacting qualification process, finishing 10 points ahead of second-placed Uruguay with a goal difference of +30.
They will take some stopping this summer.
Brazil manager, Tite
A changing of the guard under head coach Julen Lopetegui appears likely to bring reward for Spain once again.
Brazil 2014 represented a tournament too far for the likes of goalkeeper Iker Casillas and midfielder Xavi, serial trophy winners for both club an country. The likes of centre-back Gerard Pique, playmaker David Silva and the enduring Andres Iniesta remain for La Fura Rioja, but vital new players have been added to the mix.
Up front, Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata scored five in five during qualifying and looked a better fit than Diego Costa ever did. Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea is also better for his experience as No1 at Euro 2016, while the time is now for Real Madrid attackers Isco and Marco Asensio.
Their strength in depth is only rivalled by Germany and France, with the XI able to withstand any threat. A new ‘Golden Generation’ is emerging.
Spain’s Alvaro Morata (l)
An air of mystery exists around Asia’s dominant nation.
A lack of funding, weak planning and political isolation should combine to curtail head coach Carlos Queiroz. Yet through the storm and several threats of resignation, the ex-Manchester United assistant has created a regional superpower during his six years in charge.
The power of the collective is key in a squad headlined by rising Rubin Kazan forward Sardar Azmoun, who has 22 goals in 30 international appearances. Persepolis goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand stood behind a defence which conceded just twice – in the last game against Syria – in the third-and-final round of qualifying.
Team Melli only gained one point in their three group matches at World Cup 2014. Yet beaten finalists Argentina will never forget how hard they pushed them in a match decided by Lionel Messi’s solitary 91st-minute winner.
Iran boss Carlos Quieroz (c)
The Eagles are back on the global stage and ready to make an impact.
For a region that has long existed as a hotbed of football talent, it is no surprise to see how strong their squad is. Manchester United anchorman Nemanja Matic is one of the Premier League’s best players, left-back Aleksandar Kolarov has been reborn at Roma, the creative Dusan Tadic got four goals and seven assists as his nation stormed to top spot in UEFA qualifying’s Group D and Lazio’s emerging Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is one of Serie A’s dominant midfield figures.
The Serbs aren’t without their weaknesses. Caretaker coach Mladen Krstajic has stressed a desire to bring in new blood, while veteran Zenit Saint Petersburg defender Branislav Ivanovic has shown signs of creaking.
But any nation hoping for an easy team from pot four will reel at the suggestion of playing them.
Serbia’s Nemanja Matic (c).