FRANKFURT, Germany – Argentina and the Netherlands transformed the World Cup's toughest group into a stroll to the second round.
Faced by tricky matches from the start, they both feared early elimination.
Instead, they made it to the last 16 with a game to spare. Now they meet in Frankfurt on Wednesday to decide who finishes at the top of Group C.
Argentina followed up its entertaining 2-1 victory over newcomer Ivory Coast with a 6-0 rout of Serbia-Montenegro on Friday.
Hours later, the Dutch scored two early goals and beat the Ivorians 2-1 in Stuttgart. Like Argentina, they had a hard job against the Africans, who could easily have snatched a draw.
But, after a 1-0 victory over Serbia-Montenegro, the Netherlands also has six points with one game to play.
It didn't look good for the two powerhouse teams when the draw was made in Leipzig in December.
Serbia-Montenegro qualified as an unbeaten group winner with one of the best defensive records in the history of the competition, only one goal conceded in 10 games.
Although the Ivory Coast was in the World Cup for the first time, it had several top flight stars such as Chelsea striker Didier Drogba and Arsenal defender Kolo Toure. In qualifying, it finished above Cameroon and Egypt, which later beat the Ivorians in a penalty shootout in the African Nations Cup final.
Under a closed roof in Gelsenkirchen, Carlos Tevez and Lionel Messi marked their first World Cup appearances with goals. Also, Maxi Rodriguez hit the target twice and Esteban Cambiasso also scored.
"We're really working well as a group," Cambiasso said. "This team is solid and we are very confident. We know we haven't achieved anything yet. We have to stay relaxed on the path we want to take, because it's a long road and it's hardly just begun."
Maybe, but this was a big step.
Argentina's task was helped by the fact that the Serbia-Montenegro players have become frustrated by the tactics used by coach Ilija Petkovic, who was accused of being too negative in their 1-0 loss to the Dutch.
"I changed the tactics under media pressure," Petkovic said. "Now you see what happened when we opened up."
The players said the breakup of Serbia and Montenegro also upset the team's preparations after the Montenegrins voted last month for a split.
"It's tough playing for a country that doesn't exist," striker Savo Milosevic said. "The next time this team plays, it will be Serbia and the players will know what nation they are representing."
At the Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion, Robin van Persie's powerful free kick and Ruud van Nistelrooy's first World Cup goal gave the Dutch a 2-0 lead in the first 27 minutes.
But Bakary Kone replied for the Ivorians before halftime and the Dutch defense had some narrow escapes before the team captured its second victory.
"You have to realize this is very young team. It is very important to reach the second round," Netherlands coach Marco Van Basten said.
The Ivory Coast would have been considered Africa's best hope of a place in the second round if it had been in an easier group.
"They can be very proud of themselves. They made very good impression," Robben said. "Maybe they were unlucky they were up against two strong teams. We were also not happy the way we were drawn."
Ivory Coast coach Henri Michel said it was always going to be tough job for his team.
"Against countries like Argentina and the Netherlands, nothing is easy," he said. "The only thing we lack is experience."
Angola catches on to this World Cup thing fast.
Goalkeeper Joao Ricardo frustrated Mexico with some dramatic saves and the Black Antelopes, down to 10 men for the final 11 minutes, drew 0-0 with the heavily favored Mexicans on Friday night to keep alive hopes of a second-round berth at the World Cup.
Five days after an opening 1-0 loss to former colonial ruler Portugal, World Cup newcomer Angola frustrated the Mexicans with desperate defending. They also had a few moments of their own offensively to earn a point.
The draw also postponed Mexico's celebrations, preventing it from moving to the verge of the round of 16 with a second victory in Group D. The result left Mexico atop the group with four points. Portugal plays Iran on Saturday in the other group game.
Ricardo's most desperate effort came in the 57th minute, racing off his line and leaping to thwart Guillermo Franco's attempt to chip over him from just inside the penalty area. Second-half substitute Jesus Arellano put the rebound back on goal, but Jamba cleared the ball off the line.
Ricardo also made a dive to his right to block Rafael Marquez's blistering shot in the final minutes.
"It's a great challenge to play Mexico," Angola coach Luis Oliviera Goncalves. "They're a very difficult team, but we developed a strategy that allowed us not to suffer goals and to try to score ourselves."
Mexico, without striker Jared Borgetti, who was injured in a 3-1 victory over Iran, used midfielder Zinha as a replacement. But a visibly agitated coach Ricardo Volpe abandoned that plan in the 53rd minute, replacing him with Arellano as a third striker.
Ricardo also thwarted Franco with a minute remaining in the first half, but was anything but perfect. Twice he dropped balls in the first half, including one on Marquez's cross that Jamba had to clear.
Mexico was supported by what seemed to be double its fan contingent from the first game, filling most of Hamburg's 43,200 capacity stadium to the point. The fans drowned out the recorded music for the Mexican national anthem.
Taking advantage of the atmosphere, Mexico dominated the first 20 minutes, forcing Angola to foul to thwart attacks. Its best efforts included Carlos Salcido's shot from 30 yards that landed in the top netting, and Marquez's free kick from 35 yards that deflected off the wall and onto the right post.
But after Angola weathered the initial surge, the Black Antelopes began to gain some possession and force Mexico to defend. It was mostly limited to long-range efforts, but it kept the ball out of Angola's end.
Andre was ejected in the 79th minute with a second yellow card for a handball, the Black Antelopes concentrated on blocking the Mexicans.
Angola's few thousand red-clad supporters in the southwest corner of the stadium became more vocal as the game wore on, interrupted only by occasional moments of "Yes we can" from the Mexican fans.
"We have to wait and see what happens in the next match, the match with Portugal," Mexico coach Ricardo Lavolpe said.