Before beating Hibernian 3-0 and justifying their status as favourites to lead the chase on Celtic in Scotland, United had forced the dismissal of Dinamo Moscow's coach, Sergei Silkin, after his team needed a late goal to escape Tannadice with a 2-2 draw. They would not have recognised their opponents last night.
First of all, there was a new man in the dug-out. Dmitry Khokhlov made a few big changes to the team, most significantly the demotion to the bench of Aleksandr Sapeta, who emerged in the second half to score the double that elevated the scoreline to the kind of defeat that will live long in the memory of the United players who trudged off when it was over.
Yet it was the quality of the Russian team, not the identity of its players, that changed the most. They looked like the expensively-constructed team they are, lead in attack by the captain, Kevin Kuranyi, a former Germany internationalist, and Aleksandr Korokin, the 21-year-old Russia forward and the most celebrated contemporary product of a proud youth system at this club.
Dinamo swarmed United from the start and within two minutes had reward for their urgency. Igor Shemshov beat Radoslaw Cierzniak low from the edge of the box. Houston's team had not yet found their feet on the artificial turf inside the Arena Khimki, yet already the road ahead had steepened. The volume of the crowd went up and the ordeal that would be the first half was hardly underway.
The second goal was the best example so far of Silkin's gameplan; the first of a series of swift counter-attacks through the middle of the Scottish team's defence. Every time a United possession broke down – often this happened with brutal simplicity – their opponents seemed to know automatically where the ball would go in the next three passes. This time the outlet was Balazs Dzsudzsak, who beat two defenders before crossing for Kokorin to head back across goal and in.
There was still 10 minutes of the half left when Artur Yusurpov bent United's hopes of recovery out of any recognisable shape. Again, United lost the ball and were exposed with distressing haste. A triangle of passes – Kuranyi laid off the first to Kokorin, the centre forward slipped the decisive ball between the central defenders to Yusupov, running beyond the United line – gave the defensive midfielder an opportunity he took with style, clipping his shot around Cierzniak's dive.
In between those devastating blows, United escaped further punishment by narrow margins. Marko Lomic drove a volley just wide from a corner; Cierzniak made a fine, sprawling save after a goal kick from his opposite number Roman Berezovsky bounced three times between his centre-backs, Gavin Gunning and Brian McLean.
United had started the season well and, top-loaded with talent, they may over-run their opponents in many domestic fixtures. However, at this elevated level, on hostile territory, that inexperienced central pairing was exploited by a Dinamo midfield that appeared able to select and execute the killer pass before any pressure was applied. Houston's side had come to attack, but their commitment to that cause left them vulnerable against superior opposition.
United simply could not bridge the gap between the wage bills of the clubs as they had in front of their own supporters. When they looked dangerous, the ball was with a player whose value is rising toward that of the players he was up against last night. Gary Mackay-Steven once again announced that his form in the second half of last season was no freak. The 20-year-old winger was feared and fouled by a cast of internationalists, who took turns to bestow upon him a kind of violent compliment. Luke Wilkshire, the Australian who was tormented at Tannadice, and the chief offender against Mackay-Steven this time, will hope that when the bids come in for the winger, he is not sold to a rival club in Russia.
He had a chance in Moscow, midway through the second half after he pulled down a zipped cross by Barry Douglas and swung his shot high and wide, but not by much. It was only part of a chance, just like the others that came United's way. Jon Daly muscled in two headers under pressure and slightly out of position and put a late shot wide from the edge of the box; Willo Flood's free-kick was dipping toward the top-left corner, but not fast enough, and spun up off the crossbar and behind; Michael Gardyne replaced Johnny Russell and pulled a low drive wide from a long way out. Finally, after five goals had forced their chins lower and lower, United's last chance was blazed over the bar by Douglas.
But although United got more of these half-glances at the Dinamo goal, the best chances in the second half still came to the hosts. With six minutes left, Sapeta drifted off McLean, bounced off Flood and lifted a neat finish into the net.
Two minutes from the end United just didn't have the legs to put any pressure on Sapeta. Perhaps they didn't think he had a mind to shoot. From 35 yards, the midfielder cut through a rising drive that moved from left to right, past Cierzniak and into the top-right corner.