UPDATE 2-Linde surge helps European shares end flat amid rising coronavirus fears

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* Nestle falls after lowering growth target

* Automakers dip as data shows drop in China sales

* Coronavirus cases jump by over 14,000

* Rallying pound, Centrica slam London’s FTSE 100

* Centrica plummets as 2019 profit slumps 35% (Updates to close)

Feb 13 (Reuters) - European shares fell marginally for the first time in three sessions on Thursday as a surge in new coronavirus cases in China wiped out any optimism about a slowing spread rate in China, but Linde’s record high on upbeat growth outlook helped offset losses.

London’s blue chip index significantly underperformed, down 1.1% as a rallying pound hit its internationally exposed companies, while utility Centrica plunged 15% on reporting a 35% drop in 2019 profit.

The sterling surged 0.7% amid strong expectations that the appointment of a new British finance minister will pave the way for a more expansionary budget next month.

After trading lower in the session the pan-European STOXX 600 index finished flat as the World Health Organization said cases of coronavirus infections are not rising dramatically outside China, calming some jitters.

The index notched new highs in the last two sessions on optimism over what appeared to be a decline in new cases of infection, as well as a slow restart in factory activity after an extended break in China.

But a dramatic jump in new cases after China deployed a new diagnostic method, and a record rise in the death toll, dashed those hopes and swiftly subdued risk appetite. HSBC lowered its first-quarter forecast for mainland China’s economic growth on Thursday. While the new charts of infection rates look much more worrying, the number of recoveries is also on the rise, providing some hope that the situation is still moving in the right direction, said Chris Beauchamp, chief market analyst at IG.

Auto stocks slid 0.8% after data showed auto sales in China likely fell 18% in January, their 19th straight month of decline, with the virus outbreak further hurting demand.

Nestle SA, the biggest firm on the STOXX 600 by market capitalization, dropped 2.2% after it pushed back its 2020 growth target to over the next two years.

Among bright spots were German shares of industrial gases group Linde which rose 3.2% after it said it aims for further profit gain in 2020. Its rise helped Germany’s China-sensitive DAX wipe most of the session’s losses.

Zurich Insurance and Dutch peer NN Group, electrical parts maker Rexel SA and Commerzbank all rallied to the top of the STOXX 600 after handily topping earnings expectations.

European real estate, utility and healthcare sectors benefited from some defensive buying.

Italian shares managed to weather the rout as Telecom Italia surged after on expectations for M&A moves on its network, while payment firm Nexi jumped on multiple price target hikes after strong earnings. (Reporting by Ambar Warrick and Susan Mathew in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur and Chizu Nomiyama)