MANCHESTER, England -- Robin van Persie swept Manchester United to a record-extending 20th English league title on Monday, scoring a first-half hat trick in a 3-0 win over Aston Villa as the runaway leaders wrapped up the championship with four games to spare.
The Netherlands striker has been the driving force behind United's bid to reclaim the trophy from Manchester City, and he led the charge at Old Trafford by scoring the opener after only 83 seconds and then steering in a sublime volley in the 12th.
The party had started in earnest by the time he wrapped up his hat trick in the 33rd, giving United an unassailable 16-point lead over City.
"It is a great feeling," said the Netherlands striker, the top scorer in the league with 24 goals. "It is a fantastic team and fantastic players. It is a championship for every single one of them."
United clinched a 13th title in 21 seasons of the Premier League with nearly a month remaining in the season -- it is the earliest a club has clinched the Premier League title since United in 2001.
Ferguson's decision to sign Van Persie last off-season for 24 million pounds ($36 million) -- a hefty price for a previously injury-prone player with just a year left on his Arsenal contract -- has turned into a masterstroke.
"I remember (Arsenal manager) Arsene Wenger saying he's a better player than you think," said Ferguson, who secured his 13th league title and 49th trophy of his managerial career. "I think he could be right.
"In terms of impact, I think it's as big as anyone I can remember."
City manager Roberto Mancini previously acknowledged that Van Persie has been "the difference" between the two teams this season, and each of the goals Monday must have been painful to watch for the blue half of Manchester.
His second -- a beautifully hit volley from the edge of the area after the ball dropped over his shoulder -- brought the crowd to its feet.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's the goal of the season," Ferguson said. "Technique, head over the ball. Magnificent strike."
Ferguson walked into the centre circle after the fulltime whistle sounded and was soon embraced by Van Persie, who left his teammates celebrating in front of fans and made a beeline for the Scot.
Draped in a flag proclaiming United as champions for the 20th time, Rio Ferdinand tugged at Van Persie's shirt bearing the No. 20 with a hand on each number as he said: "No. 20, No. 20."
After throwing away an eight-point lead with six games to play last season, United was determined to grab the title at the first opportunity this time and there was no danger of a collapse against relegation-threatened Villa.
United's players celebrated jubilantly in front of all four ends of Old Trafford, with more than 75,000 fans reveling in a carnival atmosphere. The meltdown last season hurt, especially coming at the hands of a fierce rival.
"The players had to focus after how they lost the league last season," Ferguson said.
The second goal will rank among the best at Old Trafford in recent years, with Van Persie connecting sweetly from the edge of the area following a perfectly weighted pass from Wayne Rooney. As the net rippled, Van Persie sprinted along the touchline to receive the acclaim of Old Trafford.
-- The Associated Press