With 868 matches played across six confederations, 2454 goals scored and the hopes of some 177 nations cruelly dashed for another four years, World Cup excitement - albeit against a backdrop of ongoing political controversy - will reach fever pitch on Friday (1 December) as the 32 confirmed qualifiers for Russia 2018 discover their group stage fate at a lavish ceremony hosted by Gary Lineker at Moscow's State Kremlin Palace.

Plenty of familiar names will be absent from proceedings, with four-time winners Italy joining the United States, Chile and the Netherlands in failing to qualify for the planet's biggest single-sport event.

Perennial underachievers England's latest berth was secured in typically comfortable but mundane fashion and optimism appears in preciously short supply despite a pair of reputable friendly results against heavyweight opposition at Wembley Stadium earlier this month.

Here, IBTimes UK looks at the best and worst case draw scenarios for Gareth Southgate and co...

Best case scenario

Pot one: Poland

Were it not for the old adage about avoiding the host nation in any major tournament, then Russia would definitely have been our pick here.

Arguably the worst performers both on and off the pitch at a miserable European Championship in France, it is difficult to see them progressing too far even with the considerable benefit of home advantage. It is also worth noting that, per the BBC, getting drawn in the A4 slot alongside Russia would involve a round trip of some 9,850km from England's base in Repino, a village near Saint Petersburg in the Gulf of Finland, to the cities of Yekaterinburg, Rostov and Samara.

If you thought the hand-wringing over the journey to the humid Amazonian city of Manaus four years ago was excessive, a World Cup in an even vaster country that features no fewer than 11 different time zones will see logistics become a hotter topic than ever before.

Poland are next on the list, despite boasting several impressive players and one of European football's most-feared marksmen in Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski. Adam Nawalka's charges breezed through qualification with eight wins from 10, but have gone past the group stage just once in a major tournament since 1986 and are appearing at their first World Cup in 12 years.

Pot three: Iran

Iran were without a World Cup win before their memorable defeat of the United States in a politically-charged clash at France 98 and have failed to muster another in their two appearances since then.

However, still under the management of Sir Alex Ferguson's right-hand man Carlos Queiroz, the defensively frugal three-time Asian Cup winners were dominant in qualifying, going 18 matches unbeaten, and possess a highly-rated young attacker in Sardar Azmoun who plays his club football in Russia.

Pot four: Panama

While wishing to avoid accusations of typically baseless English arrogance, England should have no fears about any of the also-rans in the fourth and final pot if they are truly serious about improving upon decades of exhausting underachievement.

Panama
Panama declared a public holiday after qualifying for the World Cup for the very first time last month RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images

South Korea and Saudi Arabia are both ranked lower by Fifa, but, given that no two teams from the same confederation can be drawn into the same group with the exception of Uefa, we'll opt for the World Cup debutants from Central America.

Panama could benefit from the element of surprise in Russia after a controversial win over already-qualified Costa Rica saw Los Canaleros benefit from an American calamity, but it seems incredibly unlikely that their maiden appearance will be anything other than memorable but short-lived.

Worst case scenario

Pot one: Brazil

Pot one inevitably throws up a number of heavyweight clashes that England will hope desperately to avoid, but Brazil stand out as the most daunting test despite being held to a goalless friendly draw at Wembley earlier in November.

The vaunted Selecao once again boast a star-studded attack and have been vastly improved under head coach Tite, notching nine successive victories to become the first team other than automatic qualifiers Russia to seal their place at the tournament.

Pot three: Iceland

Many an England fan will have woken up in a cold sweat thinking about the humiliating farce that transpired in Nice on 27 June 2016, when Roy Hodgson's hopelessly naive outfit demonstrated perfectly how not to defend a long throw-in and Joe Hart offered a gift to Kolbeinn Sigthorsson as Iceland subjected the Three Lions to a historic new low.

Nobody associated with England wants to hear that pesky Viking Thunder-Clap celebration again at the World Cup, where Iceland's 'Golden Generation' will be appearing for the first time as a country of only 334,252 people continue to punch admirably above their weight.

Iceland
Iceland shocked sorry England in the last-16 at last summer's European Championship Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Top seeds Denmark could also pose a real threat if Tottenham Hotspur playmaker Christian Eriksen replicates the dominant goal-scoring form he displayed both in regular qualifying and in a devastating second-leg play-off destruction of the Republic of Ireland in Dublin.

Back on world football's biggest stage for the first time since Italia 90, Egypt may similarly prove a force to be reckoned with if the Premier League's most influential summer signing - Liverpool speedster Mohamed Salah - continues the sort of scintilating performances that have already seen him notch 17 goals in 21 appearances on Merseyside.

Pot four: Nigeria

Combative Serbia are the highest-ranked team in pot four, although only a maximum of two European teams can be drawn into the same group.

The next cab off the rank in terms of perceived difficulty would appear to be Nigeria, who did not lose a single game in a tough group containing Cameroon and Algeria en route to becoming the first African nation to qualify with a match to spare.

The Super Eagles boast a number of players familiar to regular followers of the Premier League in the likes of John Obi Mikel, Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho.