A bit of nerves: Which Championship sides will prevail, after a season of reluctant top contenders?

With just five football matches remaining from the 2014-15 Championship regular season in England, the identity of its winners and runners-up remains anyone’s guess.

This is in stark contrast to last year, which almost resembled a season-long win parade for Leicester, who won the title with an impressive 102 points. Burnley were galloping home behind them, a comfortable eight points clear of Derby’s nearest rivals. Only the battle for the sixth and final play-off place sparked any cause for excitement, as Brighton edged past Reading on the final day with a late winner away at Nottingham Forest.

This time, an incredible octet of teams each have a mathematical chance of an automatic promotion spot, from current leaders Bournemouth (77 points) to eighth-placed Ipswich (68). While the two victors are likely to come from the current top four, which opened up a four-point gap to the stuttering fifth-place Derby, the timid demeanor of the table leaders throughout the season illustrates that neither team is more vulnerable than when you are in front.

In fact, the leadership of the division has changed hands an incredible twenty times; of the current top six, only sixth-placed Wolves have failed to sit at the top of the table at any point. Add to this Nottingham Forest, long-forgotten pioneers of the season, who twice held first place, for a total of 38 days, and one could imagine the championship trophy covered in butter, so difficult has it proved to hold on to first place. position.

However, Bournemouth will be hoping to do just that as they enter the final stretch, having found their way to the top seven times, then falling from their position no less than six. Their dominance from mid-December to early February will prove to be the longest of any team’s noble residency this season, with a total of 59 days of their tally at the top of the table now hitting triple digits. Derby has amassed the second-highest total, with 56 lead days spread over three spells. However, a recent seven game winless streak appears to have ended their hopes of nabbing one of the top two positions. While the die-hard believers (Rams) are still hoping to claw back a five-point deficit to second place (76 points), in reality, Steve McClaren’s team will be aiming to clinch a play-off spot, amid fierce competition from the three teams that surround them: Wolves in form (71 points); the dangerous Brentford (70) and the resistant Ipswich. (Whether fans can bear the prospect of the same heartbreak they experienced at last year’s Wembley final remains to be seen.)

Norwich led the pack twice early in the season, until an extended spell of unremarkable form saw a manager change, leading to a stunning resurgence under incoming Alex Neil, a relatively inexperienced (and unusually young) choice. ) to manage a club with such high expectations. What Neil lacks in managerial hours, however, he arguably makes up for in success, having led his Hamilton side to the top flight in Scotland last year, and then to the top briefly in his first season. over there. Having found their way to second place after a run of ten wins from thirteen games, their relatively straightforward remaining fixtures may help ensure the Canaries return to the Premier League on first demand.

The first four are completed by Watford (76 points) and Middlesbrough (75), who played a game on Easter Monday in which the latter was defeated 0-2 and moved simultaneously from first position. In fact, these two teams, of all the contenders, have proven to have the most shaky grip on the top spot, as both held onto it on four occasions, never quite getting settled and comfortable. Middlesbrough’s count of days in the top numbers only thirteen; Watford is even less, only ten.

So with only five match days left, what more drama can we expect? And who will emerge triumphant? It’s certainly hard to see past Bournemouth’s brilliantly successful brand of football, as long as they continue to “play the game, not the occasion” and don’t experience the kind of jitters one might forgive a team on the brink. of grace. the highest category for the first time in its history. Their recent comeback against Birmingham, in which they overturned a worrying two-goal deficit to prevail with complete ease, suggests they may finally be ready to take the bull by the horns. Mirroring Norwich, the Cherries have an eminently winnable set of matches to go in the matchup, putting their fate in their own hands.

Wolverhampton’s late-season charge (four straight wins at the moment) may convince many that they are ready to storm the play-offs, provided they are not outclassed by another surprising push from Brentford, this year’s surprise package. . Despite the enduring class of Bakary Sako and the goal-scoring impetus provided by the new year signing of Benik Afobe, perhaps Wolves still lack the all-round quality that would surely be needed to topple a Middlesbrough or Derby over two legs. ; in fact, most would agree that the cunning and experience of both sides is likely to serve them well when the playing field is level and four teams start anew in search of that ultimate promotion spot. Don’t discount Watford, though, whose three-pronged attacking force has proven on many occasions to be as deadly as its defense looked suspect.

This expert’s advice?

Bournemouth and Norwich, with Derby to make up for last year’s Wembley woes for the second time.

May the best teams win!