Everton stopped Liverpool in their tracks at Anfield with a late Tim Cahill equalizer that prevented their bitter rivals reclaiming the Barclay Premier League leadership.
When Steven Gerrard, captaining Liverpool for the 250th time, smashed home his 14th goal of the season mid-way through the second period, it looked as if the Reds were going to knock Manchester United off the top of the table.
But Everton have become a mean outfit this season, and they desperately wanted to put their local rivals in their place.
And when Cahill's late header flashed past Jose Reina, the Toffees secured a deserved point.
Fernando Torres was back in Liverpool's starting line-up for the first time since November following his hamstring problems, for this 209th Merseyside derby.
And Irish striker Robbie Keane, so often recently consigned to the bench, was also included, with Xabi Alonso another returned to the side that were so poor in drawing at Stoke last time out.
Everton, six games unbeaten going into this clash, were without the suspended Marouane Fellaini and young striker Victor Anichebe came into the side.
For Liverpool this was a test of their nerve after a difficult fortnight which included Benitez's outburst against Sir Alex Ferguson, and then the Anfield manager's contract wrangle.
These off-field distractions came while during a period when the Reds had been forced to sit and watch as Manchester United win three games in a week to claim the Barclays Premier League top spot for the first time this season.
This was the Reds' chance to reclaim the lead, and there was little doubt this was one of the most important derbies for years.
And it was important for Everton, too. They are in a European qualification spot despite a host of injuries, and they were intent on doing anything they could to ruin Liverpool's season, with the FA Cup fourth round clash back at Anfield on Sunday.
And they showed their intent inside 40 seconds when Anichebe struck a fierce, low 20-yarder that forced Jose Reina into a full-stretch save to his left.
Everton were not going to be out-muscled and three quick fouls on Gerrard had referee Howard Webb issuing lectures to Phil Neville, Joleon Lescott and Mikel Arteta.
Then Liverpool's first clear chance saw a 12th-minute drive from Kuyt blocked by Leighton Baines in the six-yard box.
Webb continued to be tolerant as the contest became heated, and fouls by Neville on Kuyt, Cahill on Martin Skrtel and Phil Jagielka on Keane failed to see a card produced.
Then Reina was again forced into action to keep out a fine header from Cahill following Anichebe's far post cross.
Everton were more than matching their neighbours, with the abrasive Cahill as confrontational as ever.
But Steven Pienaar pushed Webb too far and was booked for a block on Torres. Seconds later the Spanish striker surged between Lescott and Jagielka, only to lift his shot against a post and behind.
Cahill then almost punished Alonso for taking a quick free-kick, the Australian blocking the ball and lifting a shot over the crossbar from the half-way line.
Anichebe and Alonso both needed treatment after a clash of heads, before Leon Osman won possession in midfield and forced Reina into another save and Albert Riera then sent a 20-yarder flashing just wide of Tim Howard's right-hand post.
Referee Webb refused Liverpool a penalty two minutes after the break when Torres went down theatrically after being pushed by Jagielka.
Arteta was booked for a trip on Kuyt, Liverpool having the most sustained spell of pressure in the match. But still Baines got away down the left twice to test Reina with testing crosses.
And after Cahill had won a soft free-kick against Skrtel, Arteta fired in a low drive that Reina held with some difficulty.
Howard saved well from Gerrard and Baines was not to know Torres was offside as he produced a fine saving tackle to stop the striker scoring from the rebound.
Liverpool needed more guile to break down Everton's outstanding defence and Yossi Benayoun came on for Keane.
Everton felt they deserved a penalty when Skrtel looked to send Anichebe tumbling, and they may have had a case.
But the South Yorkshire referee waved away the appeals, and the complaints were still raging on the pitch - and the touchline - as Liverpool surged away for Gerrard to crash home a 30-yard drive to put the hosts ahead after 68 minutes.
It had been over 10 hours since Everton had previously conceded a goal.
Everton hit back with Osman firing a rising drive that Reina held. Such was Liverpool's desire to hang onto their lead that Torres was replaced by Lucas after 85 minutes, Kuyt now playing a lone role up front.
And Everton's defiance was rewarded when they forced themselves level after 87 minutes when Arteta's free-kick from the left was met by a powerful, flicked header by Cahill in the six-yard box.
Liverpool sent on Ryan Babel for Riera, but were unable to deny Everton their point.