Everton, Liverpool, VAR serve up Merseyside derby with everything ... except fans

Hislop: VAR saved Jordan Pickford's blushes vs. Liverpool (1:02)

Shaka Hislop has his say on the controversial VAR decision to rule out Jordan Henderson's winning goal. (1:02)

LIVERPOOL, England -- It was a game that had it all -- a frenzy of goals, controversy and two teams going toe-to-toe for Premier League points -- but at the end, when referee Michael Oliver blew the final whistle on a pulsating 2-2 draw between table-topping Everton and champions Liverpool in the 237th Merseyside derby, there was jarring silence.

After four months behind closed doors in England due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this game proved that football without fans can still be exciting, passionate, and loaded with talking points. Indeed, it was more like a demolition derby at times.

It had a red card for Everton's Richarlison, a contentious VAR disallowed goal in stoppage time for Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, a shocking foul by Everton keeper Jordan Pickford on Virgil van Dijk that went unpunished and four top-quality goals, including Mohamed Salah''s which saw him hit the 100-goal milestone for Liverpool.

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It was a day when Everton, still searching for their first win against their bitter rivals for 10 years, faced up to their city neighbours and almost beat them in the dying seconds. But then the final whistle came and the cacophony of noise that would usually greet the end of such a sensational encounter was turned down to mute because nobody was there to witness it.

This was the best Merseyside derby that the fans have never seen; yes, they will have watched it in pubs and in their front rooms at home, but the essence of football really needed fans inside the stadium, celebrating the spectacle they would have experienced and, at times, endured.

So as the players trooped off the pitch, they did so in front of the ghosts of Goodison Park, with images of Everton's greats staring down in eerie silence from banners in the stands. It was similar before kickoff, with the walk to the stadium punctuated only by the sound of dogs barking in the streets. The usual buzz of matchday was conspicuous by its absence.

The players did their best to make up for the lack of atmosphere, with both sides showcasing not just their best, but some of the worrying frailties that could cost them both.

Liverpool showed that they are over their 7-2 mauling at Aston Villa two weeks ago, while Everton proved they are on an upwards trajectory under manager Carlo Ancelotti and that their impressive, table-topping start to the season is no fluke.

From the moment Sadio Mane put Liverpool ahead in the third minute, you could not take your eyes off a game that displayed the good, the bad and the ugly, the latter of which came just two minutes later, when Pickford forced Van Dijk out of the game with a wild, feet-first challenge that resulted in neither a penalty nor a red card.

Everton's goalkeeper wasn't even booked and nobody quite knows why. VAR official David Coote chose not to review the incident that came immediately after an offside decision, but the England keeper could, and should, have been sent off.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp did not know the extent of Van Dijk's injury after the game, but he did say "it is not good" when asked about his concerns. With the Dutch international defender absent, Everton quickly levelled when Michael Keane headed in James Rodriguez's corner on 19 minutes and the game continued to ebb and flow; Allan controlled Everton's midfield, with Thiago Alcantara offering rare composure for Liverpool.

Everton were determined to end their winless run against Liverpool -- it is 10 years to the day since they last won a league derby -- and this was a game when they matched their rivals stride for stride, but when Salah scored to make it 2-1 on 72 minutes, after Yerry Mina's poor clearance from Henderson's cross, it looked set to be the same old ending to the same old story for the Blues.

Pickford, an erratic keeper at the best of times, then kept his team in the game with a wondrous save to keep out a Joel Matip header. However, as Liverpool looked for a decisive third, the game flipped when Calvert-Lewin equalised with a stunning header on 81 minutes.

Lucas Digne's cross from the left was high into the area, but Calvert-Lewin showed the kind of elevation for which Cristiano Ronaldo is famous, leaping high to head the ball into the net.

Everton sensed victory and a full Goodison would have roared them on, but they could not find the winning goal and their hopes were dashed when Richarlison was sent off for a 90th-minute foul on Thiago. It was the 22nd Merseyside derby red card in the Premier League era; no fixture has racked up more.

With five minutes of stoppage time to play, Liverpool had the chance to win the game and it seemed as if Henderson had done that when his shot was fumbled into the net by Pickford, who was rescued by technology again, this time because VAR did act, judging that Mane had strayed fractionally offside.

A late winner for either side would have been unjust after a game in which neither deserved to lose. It was just a shame that nobody was able to watch it in the flesh, to give this remarkable derby the atmosphere and noise it deserved.