La Liga 2016-17 guide: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Alaves & more

Lionel Messi, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo & Kevin Gameiro

The new La Liga season got under way last weekend with Barcelona aiming to secure their third consecutive title, and Atletico Madrid and city rivals Real determined to stop them.

But Spanish football isn't just about the 'big three' and there are plenty more storylines to savour as the campaign unfolds including intriguing managerial changes, top-flight novices with a bizarre nickname and a draconian new rule.

BBC Sport has the full story...

Bale becoming Real's main man

They have lifted the Champions League trophy twice in three years, but Real Madrid have won only one league title in the past eight seasons - and the big question at the start of the new La Liga campaign is whether they will finally be able to wrest domestic supremacy away from Barcelona.

Zinedine Zidane's men, pipped by their great rivals by just a point last season, made a strong start, winning their opening game 3-0 at Real Sociedad on Sunday. That included two goals from Gareth Bale, who needed only 72 seconds to score the opener.

Bale's outstanding performance was timely, adding further credence to an increasingly popular theory that he is gradually usurping Cristiano Ronaldo as the key player at the Bernabeu.

The Welshman was excellent last season, bouncing back from an underwhelming 2014-15 campaign to produce his best form in Spain so far.

And with Ronaldo understandably becoming more of a penalty-box predator as he advances into his early 30s, it does seem that Bale - along with fellow former Tottenham player Luka Modric - is Real's main man in terms of developing play.

It has been an unusually quiet summer for the Bernabeu club, whose only foray into the transfer market has been re-signing former youth team striker Alvaro Morata from Juventus to compete with Karim Benzema.

But that lack of activity could prove to be a blessing for Zidane, who already possesses world-class talent in every position and could have seen the balance of his squad disrupted by the arrival of yet another unnecessary but expensive 'Galactico'.

And one new star is rapidly emerging: 20-year-old winger Marco Asensio, who spent last season on loan at Espanyol, has returned to establish himself in Zidane's plans by scoring brilliant goals in the Uefa Super Cup victory over Sevilla and the league opener at Real Sociedad. Remember the name.

Marco Asensio
Asensio joined Real Madrid from Mallorca in December 2014

New faces at Nou Camp

Standing in Real's way, of course, are a Barcelona team who began the season in ominous fashion with a magisterial 6-2 thrashing of Real Betis at home on Saturday.

Although Luis Suarez - last season's leading scorer in La Liga - scored his fourth hat-trick in six league matches, the headlines were taken by Lionel Messi, who scored twice as part of a dazzling performance which touched dizzying heights even by his own unique standards.

There is a distinctly new look to the Barca team this season - and not just because of Messi's dubious combination of peroxide blond hair and thick ginger beard.

After a summer of strengthening in the transfer market, three players made their debuts against Betis: France defenders Lucas Digne and Samuel Umtiti, and former Manchester City youth midfielder Denis Suarez.

In addition, gifted Portuguese creator Andre Gomes has been signed from Valencia and the Catalan club are still hoping to secure a back-up striker to Luis Suarez before the transfer window closes. Valencia's Paco Alcacer is the leading candidate.

Although none of the signings - except, perhaps, Umtiti - are likely to feature in Barca's strongest XI, manager Luis Enrique now has more opportunity to rotate his squad and therefore prevent the burnout which nearly derailed their title challenge last season.

But the key for Barca remains, of course, their astonishingly successful 'MSN' forward line - Messi, Suarez and Neymar - who have combined for an incredible 260 goals in their two (and a bit) seasons together. If that trio stays fit and in form, the champions will take some stopping.

Lionel Messi
Things are changing at Barcelona - and not just Messi's hairstyle and facial hair

Can Atletico challenge again?

After finishing just three points off top spot last season, there is every reason to believe Atletico Madrid will mount another serious challenge for the title they snatched from under Barca's noses in 2014.

When two Champions League finals are added to their consistent high finishes in La Liga, it's clear they have transformed themselves into genuine superpowers since the arrival of Diego Simeone in late 2011.

The all-encompassing power of Barca and Real, however, means Atletico rarely receive their share of the limelight - even in their own city - and are routinely overlooked by pundits and bookmakers, who rate Los Rojiblancos as big as 14/1 shots for the title. Barca are slight odds-on favourites ahead of Real.

Although Atletico's campaign got off to a disappointing start as, without suspended star striker Antoine Griezmann, they were held to a 1-1 home draw by Alaves last weekend, it would surely be unwise to write them off too soon.

The indefatigable Simeone has kept hold of the squad which came so close to glory last season and added further quality in the form of livewire French striker Kevin Gameiro, whose goal in Sevilla's Europa League final victory over Liverpool was his 29th of the season.

The all-French partnership of Euro 2016 top scorer Griezmann and Gameiro is a tantalising prospect, and we don't have to wait for long to discover whether Atletico can be contenders again - they travel to Barcelona on Wednesday, 21 September.

Kevin Gameiro
Kevin Gameiro scored 39 goals in 49 La Liga appearances for Sevilla before joining Atletico

Cucumbers among the new boys

Basque club Deportivo Alaves reacted to winning the Segunda Division at the end of last season in a strange manner: they sacked their promotion-winning coach and got rid of most of the players.

But, last weekend, the new-look team, now led by former Valencia boss Mauricio Pellegrino and featuring seven debutants, partially vindicated that ruthlessness by making an impressive start to their first top-flight campaign since 2006 with a draw against Atletico.

Alaves, best known for their 5-4 defeat by Liverpool in the 2001 Uefa Cup final, are perhaps not even the most famous sports club in the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz. The town's basketball team, Baskonia, are among the most successful in Spain and last season reached the semi-finals of Euroleague, the continent's leading club competition.

In fact, Josean Querejeta, the chief executive of both clubs, reportedly had a novel response this summer when Barcelona's basketball team attempted to sign one of Baskonia's star players - he asked if Alaves could have Barca's reserve full-back Douglas in return. Neither deal went through.

Elsewhere, another newly promoted team, Leganes, fared better on the opening weekend with a 1-0 victory over Celta Vigo.

Leganes, where Samuel Eto'o started his senior career after a loan move from Real Madrid, are undoubtedly the fairytale team of the new season, with their 8,000-capacity Batarque stadium preparing for the first top-flight campaign in the club's history.

The Madrid-based minnows are also notable for possessing maybe the strangest nickname in football: The Cucumber Growers. This summer they have been running a marketing campaign entitled 'Now Try Our Cucumbers', while their victory in Vigo came in their change strip... all green, of course.

The other newly promoted side are more familiar, with Osasuna returning to the highest level after an absence of two years.

Mauricio Pellegrino
Mauricio Pellegrino, a former Liverpool defender and assistant coach, is in charge of Alaves

All-out attack from Sevilla

La Liga's great entertainers should be Sevilla under the bold leadership of new coach Jorge Sampaoli, who made his name by winning three domestic titles in Chile before taking the national team to Copa America glory on home soil in 2015.

Sampaoli is a famously attack-minded coach, and Sevilla's playing formation in last weekend's opener at home to Espanyol could best be described as 2-3-2-3, featuring wing-backs who spent very little time anywhere near 'back'.

In a sign of things to come, Sevilla beat Espanyol 6-4 - the first time there has been such a scoreline in La Liga since 1956 - with all the home team's goals scored by summer signings. Franco Vazquez, a new arrival from Palermo, is one man to watch in particular.

Another team to keep an eye on are Las Palmas, who were one of Spain's best sides in the latter stages of last season and made the summer's most eyebrow-raising signing with the capture of former AC Milan star Kevin-Prince Boateng.

Boateng scored a brilliant header on his debut as Las Palmas maintained their pre-season optimism with a 4-2 away victory over Valencia on Monday, and they could well prove to be this term's surprise package.

Elsewhere, two familiar faces are back in the dug-out as former Real Madrid and Tottenham boss Juande Ramos takes charge of a promising team at Malaga, while ex-Brighton and Sunderland chief Guy Poyet has been appointed by Real Betis.

Don't worry Gus, you don't have to play Barcelona every week...

Kevin Prince Boateng
Kevin-Prince Boateng was signed by Las Palmas on a free transfer from AC Milan

Camera appeal

If you are watching a La Liga game and notice fans seem to be crammed into certain parts of the ground while other areas are left vacant, there is a good reason.

Increasingly aware of the need to compete with the English Premier League for the lucrative overseas television market, La Liga's bosses have realised a game played in front of packed stands provides a much better TV product, conveying a sense of atmosphere and excitement.

To counter the unfortunate fact many Spanish grounds are often well below capacity (not helped by the league's unhelpful fixture scheduling), the authorities have taken the drastic step of introducing a new rule which will see clubs fined if the stand facing the main TV camera is less than 75% full.

The league's rule book "strongly recommends accommodating season-ticket holders and other spectators" in the necessary seating, with judgments to be made on the decidedly low-tech basis of photographs taken by delegates after 30 minutes of each match.

It's too early to tell how strictly the league will apply their bizarrely authoritarian new 'incentive', but there is comfort for clubs such as Deportivo La Coruna and Real Sociedad in the notoriously wet northern regions of Spain - the rule does not apply when it rains.

Ronaldo to overhaul Greaves?

Fitness permitting, Cristiano Ronaldo should reach a significant milestone midway through the season.

The Real Madrid star is 22 goals behind England legend Jimmy Greaves as the leading all-time scorer in Europe's major five leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain).

Considering Ronaldo's usual rate of scoring, he should overtake that mark sometime in January or February.

Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo scored 51 goals in 48 appearances for Real Madrid last season

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