STUTTGART: Italy, Australia and debutants Ghana advanced to the knockout stage of the World Cup on a dramatic Thursday while Brazil striker Ronaldo equalled the tournament's all-time scoring record.
Czech Republic, United States and Croatia bowed out despite frantic efforts to turn things around as the clock ticked down to elimination.
The excitement even got to English referee Graham Poll, who showed a Croatian player two yellow cards but forgot to send him off in a chaotic end. Two other players in their game with Australia were shown the red card before the final whistle.
Ronaldo scored twice to draw level with German Gerd Mueller's record of 14 goals in World Cup finals as Brazil, already assured of qualification, defeated Japan 4-1 to end the Asian nation's slim hopes of progressing.
The striker's return to form was the perfect response to critics who labelled him overweight, sluggish and past his best.
"I'm very happy I've made such a significant improvement physically and technically during the competition," said Ronaldo.
"I managed to stay calm and patient in all the difficult moments," he said after the Group F game in Dortmund.
Ghana secured qualification with a 2-1 win over the United States, three-times champions Italy beat the Czechs 2-0 and Australia's 2-2 draw with Croatia put the Socceroos through.
Ghana became only the fifth African team to make the knockout phase of a World Cup finals thanks to their second place in Group E.
Their triumph in Nuremberg prompted residents of Ghana's capital Accra to pour on to the streets, jump on cars and dance and sing with joy. The air rang with horns as fans clapped, blew whistles and beat metal tins, pots and drums.
"We believe we are going global now," Ghana President John Kufuor said, adding he was "overwhelmed with happiness" over the victory he said put his country on the world's soccer map.
Group E proved to be one of the most exciting in the tournament, with all four teams standing a chance of progressing as they went into Thursday's matches.
Italy's win over the Czechs, who played most of the game with 10 men, put them on top of the group.
Coach Marcello Lippi celebrated the victory in Hamburg at the same time as a prosecutor in Rome ordered top Italian clubs Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina to stand trial in the nation's biggest sports scandal in a quarter of a century.
"This team has terrific spirit, probably the most fighting spirit I have had in any team," Lippi said.
Substitutes Marco Materazzi and Filippo Inzaghi put the 1982 world champions through.
Materazzi, a defender, scored a header in the 26th minute before the Czechs were reduced to 10 men just before the break when Jan Polak was sent off.
Inzaghi, who came on in the second half, rounded goalkeeper Petr Cech to roll home the second in the 87th minute at a point when the Czechs were throwing everyone forward.
"Playing with 10 men was just too difficult today," said Czech coach Karel Brueckner.
Ghana play champions Brazil in the last 16 while Italy face Australia.
With 11 minutes to go in the battle for second place in Group F, Croatia looked set to qualify to meet the Italians.
But Harry Kewell controlled a cross at the far post and hammered the ball home to give Australia the draw they needed to qualify for the knockout stage for the first time in their history.
"What a great game tonight, you couldn't ask for more," said skipper Mark Viduka.
Croatia went ahead with a third-minute goal by midfielder Darijo Srna but defender Craig Moore equalised with a 38th-minute penalty.
Captain Niko Kovac had put Croatia ahead for the second time 11 minutes after the break only to see Kewell wreck the Balkan nation's hopes of qualifying.
The game ended in pandemonium after referee Poll showed Josip Simunic a yellow card near the end and the defender, having already been booked, began to walk to the touchline.
However, Poll seemed to forget about the earlier booking and Simunic stayed on the pitch until he got another yellow after the final whistle and was finally dismissed.
Source: China Daily