- Associated Press - Monday, April 22, 2013

MANCHESTER, England — Manchester United won its record 20th English league title, beating Aston Villa 3-0 Monday night on Robin van Persie’s first-half hat trick to clinch the championship with four games to spare.

Van Persie, signed from Arsenal last summer, put United ahead 83 seconds in when he scored from close range. He doubled the lead with a volley in the 12th minute and completed his hat trick in the 33rd minute with his league-high 24th goal of the season.

“It is a great feeling,” the Dutch forward said. “It is a fantastic team and fantastic players. It is a championship for every single one of them.”

Manchester United (27-4-3) has a 16-point lead over Manchester City (20-5-8), which has five games left. City edged United in the final minute of last season with a pair of injury-time goals against Queen Park Rangers to win its first title since 1968 and just its third overall.

This is the earliest a club has clinched the Premier League title since Manchester United on April 14, 2001, according to STATS. With victories in its last four matches, United would break the points record of 95 set by Chelsea’s in 2004-05.

United manager Alex Ferguson’s decision to sign Van Persie for 24 million pounds ($36 million) — a hefty price for a player previously injury prone — proved to be pivotal in the competition against a City team Ferguson once dubbed “noisy neighbors.”

“I’m very happy, but it’s weird. I had to wait for so long for my first title,” said the 29-year-old Van Persie, who spent three seasons at Feyenoord and eight at Arsenal.

After winning his 13th league title with United, Ferguson walked into the center circle and was embraced by Van Persie, who had left his teammates celebrating in front of fans

“You can never take anything for granted in football, and thankfully it is now done,” United forward Wayne Rooney said. “The manager has great desire and a winning mentality. We all buy into that and want to do well for the club.”

City manager Roberto Mancini previously acknowledged that the Dutch international has been “the difference” between this season.

His second goal will rank among the best this season, with Van Persie connecting from the edge of the penalty area as the ball dropped over his shoulder following Rooney’s perfectly weighted pass. As the net rippled, Van Persie sprinted along the sideline to receive the acclaim of Old Trafford.

“That’s why we are champions,” sang the United faithful, already celebrating a 13th title in 21 Premier League seasons.

Ryan Giggs has been with United for all of those titles and the Welsh midfielder, 40 later this year, played a key role in Van Persie’s other two goals.

Giggs’ cushioned volley along the face of the 6-yard box that Van Persie tapped home in the second minute.

For his third goal, Van Persie took Giggs’ short cross, rounded American goalkeeper Brad Guzan and shot into the top corner from 7 yards.