Fremantle's premiership chall-enge is on the rocks after All- Australian defender Michael Johnson was yesterday ruled out of the club's finals campaign.
Johnson will have back surgery this week and not play again this season, leaving the Dockers exposed against the league's most intimidating forward line in Saturday's first qualifying final against Sydney at ANZ Stadium.
The Dockers are also likely to again miss Luke McPharlin - the logical match-up for Coleman medallist Lance Franklin - as the key defender is unlikely to return from a calf injury before the second week of finals.
Zac Dawson and Alex Silvagni are the only recognised defenders standing 190cm or more who are certain to be fit, making the task of shutting down Franklin, Kurt Tippett, Adam Goodes and Sam Reid all the more difficult.
Young tall defender Alex Pearce has been in solid WAFL form and is available, but is yet to make his AFL debut.
The decision to send Johnson for exploratory surgery was made after the 29-year-old visited a specialist yesterday.
_The West Australian _understands the defender has been battling back soreness for weeks.
Dockers coach Ross Lyon played down the significance of Johnson's loss to face Sydney, but said they would probably travel with 26 players for added "flexibility".
"He'll be sorely missed, but in saying that it's one out, one in," Lyon told 6PR last night.
"It's a really exciting opportunity for whoever comes in it's going to be wet, a small ground.
"They're going to want to catch it because we're going to be running. I'm not worried about it too much at the minute."
Johnson played out Saturday's crunch win over Port Adelaide at Patersons Stadium in obvious discomfort.
He trailed opponent Justin Westhoff to contests by as much as 20m and battled to run freely.
The injury is a cruel blow for Johnson, who was sidelined for four weeks after damaging the medial ligament in his right knee against Adelaide in round 12.
He has been the rock of Fremantle's defence, leading the team for marks and rebound 50s last year in securing his first All-Australian jumper.
Fremantle football operations general manager Chris Bond said the club had been told there were no treatment options other than surgery available for Johnson.
Star midfielder Nat Fyfe returns from suspension.
·Injury-plagued forward Scott Gumbleton, 26, has retired from the AFL without playing a senior game for Fremantle.
"He'll be sorely missed, but in saying that it's one out, one in ... I'm not worried about it "" *Ross Lyon *