A DOWNBEAT Mick McCarthy last night claimed breaking down a lively but limited Cheltenham side was a tougher task than facing champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Anthony Le Tallec's extra-time winner sent Sunderland into the third round of the Carling Cup, and saved his side's blushes after their League Two opponents had frustrated them throughout a goalless 90 minutes.

Yet it could not gloss over the over-riding sense of under-achievement that accompanied last night's display as a sparse Stadium of Light was resigned to screaming for the final whistle as Cheltenham continued to press for an unlikely equaliser.

McCarthy was quick to praise the Robins' efforts but, with the Football League minnows pulling ten men behind the ball as Sunderland attacked, he was also at pains to point out the difficulties his players faced.

"You will find that it is easier to go out and play against Chelsea, Manchester City, Charlton or Wigan than it is to play against Cheltenham at home," said the Black Cats boss, who made a host of changes from the side that drew with West Brom last weekend.

"They put 11 men back behind the ball and that makes it extremely difficult for us to play our football.

"It's an awful lot easier to go out and perform on a Saturday at Stamford Bridge, with all of the hype and the pressure flying about, than it is to play in a game like this.

"But we're into the next round and I suppose that's the end of it. That's really all that matters."

Nevertheless, Sunderland's Premiership performers were made to look distinctly ordinary by a Cheltenham side who slipped to a 3-2 defeat against Carlisle last weekend.

McCarthy made a point of shaking the hand of each and every opposition player as they left the field, and admitted they had played above themselves to frustrate the Black Cats.

"I thought it was a fantastic performance, they did everything right, I thought they were great," he said. "It was hard on them to lose like that but we had enough chances to put the game away.

"I knew they would be well-organised, well-drilled, well-coached.

"It just shows when a team puts ten men in front of you how hard it is to break them down.

"There were some harsh words at half-time and we needed them. Cheltenham deserved my appreciation - I thought they were terrific."

McCarthy gave a number of his fringe players the chance to force their way back into his first-choice XI and, while they did not exactly shine, he refused to criticise them for their efforts.

"My players always deserve my appreciation because they work hard," he added.

"They might not always play brilliantly, but they give everything."