World Cup 2018 group by group: what you NEED to know
FIFA ranking: 65
Awarded the right to host this tournament eight years ago, Russia have had plenty of time to prepare... but failed miserably. The current squad doesn't look capable of having a decent run. After the fiasco of Euro 2016 they failed to make it out of their group at the Confederations Cup on home soil, having lost to Portugal and Mexico.
Veteran defenders Vasili Berezutski and Sergei Ignashevich have retired at an unfortunate time; the fact that a Brazilian (Mario Fernandes) and a Russian-born German (Konstantin Rausch) are likely to be starters say a lot. There are some interesting young names in midfield, though – especially Aleksandr Golovin and Daler Kuzyayev, who could become a revelation.
Key player: Igor Akinfeev
The CSKA Moscow goalkeeper is the only top-class star in the squad – the captain and the ultimate leader – but even he isn't popular with all the fans. Akinfeev made two costly blunders in the games against South Korea and Algeria at the 2014 World Cup, and was at fault again against Mexico at the Confederations Cup. Can he avoid such a fate this time?
FIFA ranking: 63
The Saudis are back to the World Cup for the first time since 2006, but they didn't reward the man who took them there. The Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk, who guided his own national team to the World Cup final in 2010, was relieved of his duties after the qualification for Russia was assured. Bizarrely, his replacement – the Argentine specialist Edgardo Bauza – only lasted two months himself and was sacked due to poor performances in friendlies. The job is now with another Argentine in Juan Antonio Pizzi, who resigned from the Chile job after failing to steer them to Russia. Oops.
Key player: Osama Hawsawi
Born in Mecca, the 33-year-old centre-back is almost sacred for the national team. The long-serving captain has 128 caps for Saudi Arabia and even seven goals to his name, including a famous effort against Spain in 2010. He would love to add to that tally in Russia.
FIFA ranking: 31
As far as the World Cup was concerned, Egypt were the perennial losers of Africa who always failed to make it through the qualifiers. Their last tournament was back in 1990, but now they're back – largely thanks to the coach who was once branded a loser himself, the Argentine Hector Cuper.
The Pharaohs were lucky that Ghana experienced a major crisis during qualifying, and now goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary hopes to make incredible history and play at the World Cup aged 45 next summer. Stoke starlet Ramadan Sobhi wasn't even born when the legendary custodian made his debut for the national team back in 1996.
Key player: Mohamed Salah
Arguably his continent's brightest superstar at the moment, the 25-year-old is also the most expensive African player in history – yet still a Liverpool transfer bargain. He has been outstanding since arriving at Anfield from Roma for £35m in the summer, and he’s been magnificent for his country as well, scoring five goals in five qualifiers. A true leader, passionate and dedicated, Salah is capable of taking the Pharaohs far.
FIFA ranking: 21
Spearheaded by Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, the Uruguayans were the second-highest scoring team in South American qualifiers behind Brazil with 32 goals, and never really in serious danger of missing out.
Oscar Tabarez, in charge since 2006, will be the longest-serving coach at the tournament and enjoy his fourth World Cup – the 71-year-old veteran was also in charge way back in 1990. Having guided La Celeste to the semi-finals in 2010, he is hoping to do at least the same in Russia with a balanced and experienced squad, led by captain Diego Godin – famous for his never-say-die attitude.
Key player: Luis Suarez
Suarez became famous for handling the ball on the line in the quarter-final against Ghana in 2010. The 2014 World Cup ended early for him when he took a bite of Giorgio Chiellini's shoulder. He was a star for Liverpool back then but his status grew immensely at Barcelona, for whom he has scored 126 goals in 163 matches. Now he aspires to make only positive headlines at his third World Cup.
FIFA ranking: 3
The European champions feel like they are unearthing the new golden generation to help Cristiano Ronaldo. Young stars like Goncalo Guedes, Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva are joining the ones who rather fortunately triumphed at Euro 2016, and manager Fernando Santos has a lot of quality midfield options at his disposal.
Portugal topped a rather easy group in qualifying with nine wins from 10 matches, but the real test still awaits them. Some of the players, though – most notably Joao Mario and Raphael Guerreiro – aren't in top form at the moment. On top of this, the central defence is overly dependent on the ageing Pepe.
Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Who else? Having one of the best players in history is a massive advantage, but the Real Madrid superstar – scorer of 79 goals in 147 matches for Portugal – can be a bit too selfish at times. He'll be 33 next summer, and this could be his last chance to shine at the World Cup. You'd hope that he will be willing to share the spotlight with team-mates, nevertheless.
FIFA ranking: 6
Spain were tipped to struggle by some after failing at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, but Julen Lopetegui proved to be successful after replacing Vicente del Bosque as coach. La Roja thrashed Italy 3-0 at home in the qualifiers to finish above them, easily topping the group.
The experience of Andres Iniesta, Sergio Ramos, David Silva and Sergio Busquets is completed by several young talents, most notably Isco and new Real Madrid sensation Marco Asensio. Spain are strong in every department, with David de Gea in goal and potential top scorer Alvaro Morata up front. Understandably, they have strong hopes of reclaiming the crown they won in 2010.
Key player: Andres Iniesta
This is likely to be a last tournament for the 33-year-old maestro who scored the 2010 final's winning goal against Holland. The midfield genius rarely finds the net these days, and his fitness could become a concern, but his ability to dictate the tempo and lead by example is still crucial for Spain.
FIFA ranking: 40
Herve Renard has cemented his place as one of the most successful managers in African history. The Frenchman who led Zambia to a sensational Africa Cup of Nations triumph in 2012, and won the title with Ivory Coast in 2015, has now taken Morocco to their first World Cup appearance since 1998.
Expectations were relatively low, but the Atlas Lions didn't concede a single goal in six matches at the group stage, and won the crucial fixture at Ivory Coast on the last matchday. The squad is mostly made of players born in Holland, France and Spain – indeed, 61% of the players they used in qualifying were born outside of Morocco – but they are united in their passion for the homeland of their parents, and fans are proud of them.
Key player: Medhi Benatia
Morocco qualified thanks to a solid defence, and Benatia is the ultimate leader at the back. The former Roma and Bayern Munich star doesn't play regularly at Juventus, but his contribution to the national team is immense – and France might be regretting that he isn't playing for them. The centre-back chose Morocco back in 2008, and is the captain now.
FIFA ranking: 32
Stability is the key word for the Iranians, with Portuguese manager Carlos Queiroz having kept the job since 2011. He built a tough and disciplined outfit for the previous World Cup in Brazil, where Team Melli very nearly frustrated Argentina before Leo Messi scored the injury-time winner.
Nothing much has changed, in that their defence is still their strongest quality: Iran didn't concede a single goal at the last stage of the qualifiers before a place in Russia was assured. Further forward they have several flair players, and managed to lure the Sweden-born Saman Ghoddos this year to widen their options in attack.
Key player: Sardar Azmoun
The lanky 22-year-old has an incredible scoring record for his country with 22 goals in 30 games – and half of them came during the qualifiers. Azmoun has been nurtured in Russia by Kurban Berdyev, who guided him at Rubin Kazan, Rostov and now Rubin again. His recent club form is poor, though, and that’s a major point for concern.