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Photograph: EPA/IAN LANGSDON

And to think they said a 24-team tournament that allowed third placed sides to progress would be boring. Right from Dimitri Payet's 89th minute winner for the hosts against Romania in Stade de France in the very first game the biggest European Championship to date has delivered as much drama as disappointment.

There have been 20 goals in the last quarter of matches and seven in stoppage time, as games, and even whole groups, have been turned on their heads by late winners.

Spain looked to be coasting in Group D drawing 1-1 in their final match with Croatia but with three minutes left Inter forward Ivan Perisic raced away to score on the break and leave Spain facing Italy in a re-run of the 2012 final in the next round.

Croatia march on as group winners and now sense they could repeat the feat of 1998 when they reached the semi-final the last time a major tournament was played in France.

There were similar scenes in Group B with England's Daniel Sturridge scoring one minute into injury time to take England top and leave Wales with a job still to do in their last game against Russia.

They did that job very convincingly and when England failed to beat Slovakia it was Gareth Bale and company who topped the group and Roy Hodgson left pondering possible meetings with France and Germany if he is to reach the final.

So-called smaller footballing nations have come into the tournament believing they can achieve something with the possibility of qualification from third place open to them.

Northern Ireland scored a famous victory over Ukraine and will now go on to face Wales. Of the sides making their bow in these finals only Albania did not qualify but they did get their first ever tournament win with a 1-0 success against Romania.

The last day of the group phase did not disappoint either. Portugal and Hungary played out a six-goal thriller and both sides were left celebrating on the final whistle having qualified for the next stage.

There was even more drama in the other Group F game where, with a minute left, substitute Arnor Ingvi Traustason scored to give Iceland the lead over Austria and send them on to a last-16 meeting with England in Nice.

"Thanks for coming, Austria, thanks for coming!" screamed elated Icelandic commentator Gudmundur Benediktsson to a nation of 323,000 people celebrating a famous win.

In the last two matches played in Wednesday night there were yet more late turnarounds as Radja Nainggolan scored an 84th minute winner for Belguim against Sweden. And in the other Group E game Ireland looked in trouble against Italy until Robbie Brady scored with just six minutes left to send them through to play France.

Contrary to fears that teams would find easier to go through than not go through under UEFA's new format and that this would inevitably lead to dull games with little at stake, the first two weeks has seen games thrill supporters right to the final whistle.

Not all games have been of the highest quality and there has been a relative paucity of goals, but the group stage has been a rollercoaster right from Payet's decisive late goal in the first game to Brady's in the final match. The knockout phase has plenty to live up to.

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