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Best of the Euro 2016 group stage: Sweatpants, late winners and more

As Euro 2016 moves on to the knockout stage, we look at back at the very best from the two-week tornado that was the group stage.

Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?

Two weeks of non-stop soccer, with some cracking drama, funny moments and talking points, all of which have already made Euro 2016 memorable. The new, expanded, 24-team format has made heroes out of Iceland and Northern Ireland fans, and allowed Portugal and Republic of Ireland chances in the knockout round that they wouldn't otherwise have had.

We're now onto the knockout stage, one with a very unbalanced bracket that features Germany, Spain, France, Italy and England on one side and a host of nations yet to win a major trophy all foaming at the mouth on the other.

But before we turn the page to Saturday's knockout matches, let's look back at the best of the group stage:

Best performance (team)

Wales 3, Russia 0

Two early goals–a rarity in this tournament–set the tone for the best Wales performance in recent history. If Wales paid for its caution against England, against Russia it went on the offensive, and reaped the reward. Joe Allen was outstanding in midfield and his through ball for Aaron Ramsey for the opener was one of the best passes we have seen in France. Left back Neil Taylor doubled the lead with his first goal in any competition in six years and then Gareth Bale scored his third goal in as many games to seal Wales’s place at the top of Group B. Astonishing stuff.

Honorable mention: Spain 3, Turkey 0

Best performance (individual) 

GK Michael McGovern; Northern Ireland 0, Germany 1

Northern Ireland may have lost this game, but McGovern’s performance was vital because a four-goal defeat would have eliminated the Northern Irish from the competition.

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That would have been a fairer result based on the balance of play and the chances created: 26 shots for Germany, 11 of which were on target. McGovern, without a club after ending his contract with Hamilton Academical, kept out Thomas Muller, Sami Khedira, Mario Gotze, Mario Gomez and Mesut Ozil with a succession of brilliant and brave stops. He received a round of applause from his teammates when he returned to the changing room–and can expect to find a new club soon enough.

Honorable mention: Andres Iniesta; Spain 1, Czech Republic 0

Best goal 

Dmitri Payet; France 2, Romania 1

Dimitri Payet stars for France in Euro 2016 opener vs. Romania

It was the opening game, the last minute, the score tied, and a player who six months ago was out of the picture scores the winner with a stunning curling shot from outside the area. No wonder Payet had tears rolling down his cheeks when he was subbed off shortly after.

It set the tournament off to the perfect start, and started the trend for very late goals both by, and in, France.

Honorable mention: Marek Hamsik; Slovakia 2, Russia 1

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Best game

Hungary 3, Portugal 3

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So much for the final round of group games having only cagey affairs. This match had it all, with Hungary taking the lead three times and three times Portugal coming back. Hungary pushed for a fourth and hit the post in a crazy second half that saw four goals in the first 20 minutes. For the third game running, Ronaldo had over 10 efforts on goal, this time scoring two, one with a superb back-heel–called "talon" in France, hence the Talon d’Or jokes–the other a trademark header.

It was enough to get Portugal into the next round.

Honorable mention: Italy 2, Belgium 0

Best substitution

Daniel Sturridge and Jamie Vardy for Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling, 46 minutes; England 2, Wales 1

This one worked partly because Kane and Sterling, in particular, had been so ineffective in the first half against Wales; Vardy and Sturridge took their chances, coming in after halftime and both scoring in a last-gasp win for England.

Honorable mention: Antoine Griezmann for Kingsley Coman, 68 minutes; France 2, Albania 0

Pass of the tournament

Leonardo Bonucci to Emanuele Giaccherini; Italy 2, Belgium 0

Italy made a dramatic start to the competition, blitzing a fancied Belgium side with intensity and tactical smarts. Its opening goal came not from the very high wingbacks but from a long pass by center back Bonucci, an outstanding defense-splitter, which Giaccherini controlled brilliantly and smashed past Thibaut Courtois. It was direct and effective.

Honorable mention: Joe Allen to Aaron Ramsey; Wales 3, Russia 0

Best trick 

Gabor Kiraly (Hungary)

Yes, Hungary’s goalkeeper really does wear sweatpants every game

The Hungarian goalkeeper is the oldest player at the tournament and is a true showman. Against Portugal, he did a "wrong leg kick," where he aimed to kick long with his right foot and actually connected with the ball, passing to a teammate, with his standing leg. He did something similar with a throw-out in an earlier game. Cynics will say it’s not intentional but believe me, Gabor knows what he’s doing!

Honorable mention: Kingsley Coman, roulette; France 2, Romania 1

Best excuse

Lukas Podolski, Germany

Germany's Joachim Low apologizes for scratch and sniff incident

The winger was asked to explain his coach Joachim Low’s behavior during the world champion’s opening-game win over Ukraine, when he was caught on camera sniffing his fingers after placing his hand down his trousers (front and back). “I believe 80% of you, and me, have scratched our balls. And everything’s fine.” Low did apologize, and perhaps it was just a coincidence that he is ambassador in Germany for Nivea beauty products.

Honorable mention: Spain manager Vicente del Bosque on Pedro complaining about his lack of game time: “I think he's been involuntarily betrayed by his own subconscious.”

Best national anthem 


Two words: Gigi. Buffon.

Honorable mention: Wales

Best home broadcast call

Iceland, and there is no one else even remotely close.

Team of the group stage 

(Maximum: one player per national team)

4-1-4-1: Michael McGovern (Northern Ireland); Joshua Kimmich (Germany), Kari Arnason (Iceland), Leonardi Bonucci (Italy), Sime Vrsaljko (Croatia); Eric Dier (England); Balazs Dzsudzsak (Hungary), Gareth Bale (Wales), Andres Iniesta (Spain), Dimitri Payet (France); Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)